(WellnessNova.com) - Whether you like them baked with cinnamon, dipped in peanut butter, or fresh off the branch, apples don’t fall far from the tree of popularity. They’re versatile, low in calories, and big on taste. But how do you know if you’re eating the healthiest apples?
With so many kinds of apples to choose from — there are over 200 unique varieties grown in the United States alone, according to the US Apple Association — it’s hard to tell. While there’s no true bad apple, some apples have fewer nutrients than others or a history of heavy pesticide residue. But there are many apple powerhouses you don’t want to skip.
Best advice? Get to know your apples, and learn how to reap the most health benefits from this favorite fruit crop.
1. Polyphenol-rich Varieties
If you like to eat red apples, you’ll get more than just good flavor. Red-skinned apples are among the healthiest apple varieties thanks to their powerful anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are polyphenol antioxidants that give apples their red color. Polyphenols keep the body functioning properly and help ward off diseases, like cancer and heart disease.
In a Canadian study, Red Delicious and Northern Spy apples ranked highest in antioxidant activity. The anthocyanins present in their skin can’t take all the credit, though; these top-rated apples are filled to the core with other health-promoting polyphenols.
Apple peels contain especially high levels of quercetin, a flavonol known for its strong anti-inflammatory properties. Quercetin has been shown to protect brain cells from oxidative stress, making it an important compound in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease.
Epicatechin is another apple polyphenol found in Red Delicious and other apple varieties — not just in the peels but in the flesh. First discovered in bitter English apples grown hundreds of years ago, epicatechin boosts heart health, improves circulation, and may even extend life.
Also abundant in apples are chlorogenic acid, a powerful antioxidant mostly concentrated in apple flesh, and procyanidin B-2, a polyphenol that promotes hair growth, according to Japanese researchers.
Besides Red Delicious and Northern Spy, apples with high polyphenol antioxidants include crab apples, Ida Red, Cortland, McIntosh, and Rome Beauty.
2. Vitamin C Leaders
Apples may not measure up to oranges when it comes to vitamin C, but all apples contain this important immunity-boosting nutrient — and some varieties offer a healthy dose. The general rule is the more acidic the apple, the higher its vitamin C content.
So which apples offer the most vitamin C bang for your buck? Calville Blanc, Sturmer, Baldwin, Northern Spy, and Yellow Newton apples come out on top. Close behind are Granny Smith, Winesap, and Jonathan varieties.
To get the most vitamin C from any apple, eat it fresh from the tree. Once apples are picked, oxidation sets in and their vitamin C levels decline to about 25 percent of what they were when picked. Cooking apples leads to further vitamin C degradation, as nutrients are lost when exposed to heat. Skip the applesauce, and opt for whole, fresh fruit instead.
And be sure to leave the peels on. Not only are two-thirds of the fiber and plenty of antioxidants found there, most of the vitamin C lies in the skin and just underneath it.
3. Nutritious Newcomers
Although many of the classic apples get all the buzz for health benefits, some worthy newcomers deserve attention.
The University of Minnesota has one apple breeding program that produces superior apples for health and flavor. The Honeycrisp variety is a University favorite, known for its sweet, tart flavor and crisp texture. The 2006 Better World Report recognized the Honeycrisp apple as one of the top 25 innovations of the decade.
Red-and-green skinned with a cream-colored flesh, Honeycrisp apples burst with juice when bitten into, due to their uniquely large cells. The more recent SweeTango variety, another Minnesota apple, has the same juicy interior. Both apples boast high amounts of fiber, vitamin C, and polyphenols.
Cornell University’s SnapDragon and Ruby Frost apples entered the market in the past year and have been a hit with apple eaters, especially kids. They’re known for their crisp juiciness along with hefty doses of vitamin C. Bred to be insect- and disease-resistant, they also store well.
But don’t get too hooked on these newcomers. Another apple superstar is emerging from Washington State University’s fruit tree breeding program — the Cosmic Crisp. With its rich red-purple color and “remarkably firm, sweet, tangy, crisp, and unbelievably juicy” profile, the Cosmic Crisp apple is bound to capture the spotlight when released in 2017.
An Apple a Day, Preferably Organic
Whichever variety is the apple of your eye, follow the age-old advice and eat one a day. It won’t just keep the doctor away; it could make you live longer too.
In a March 2016 study by the University of Western Australia, researchers discovered that women aged 70 to 85 who ate one small apple a day reduced their risk of dying early by a whopping 35 percent. The reason? High flavonoids and fiber help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer and promote overall well-being.
Another study by Florida State University showed similar results. Women who ate 2.7 ounces of dried apples every day lowered their cholesterol by 14 percent and experienced a 32 percent decline in C-reactive protein, which marks inflammation in the body. The women also lost weight — 3.3 pounds on average. The study’s author said fresh apples — any variety — would likely produce even better results.
Eating an apple a day isn’t enough, though. Go organic for the best nutrition. Apples land in the number two spot on the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list of fruits and vegetables with high concentrations of pesticides. Because apples are so susceptible to pests and disease, conventional apple producers spray their crops heavily.
Organic apples may not look as pretty, but these scarred, blotchy fruits — often the result of harmless fungi infestations — can pack a punch. A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition concludes that organic produce has 20 to 40 percent higher antioxidant content and 48 percent less cancer-causing cadmium than conventional fruit.
Organic apples are generally smaller than conventional apples, too, because fertilizers promote water retention, making conventional apples appear fuller. Still, the skins are a key source of an apple’s nutrients, and a pesticide-free skin makes for a supercharged, healthier apple.
When it comes to eating fruit, don’t upset the apple cart — it’s filled with one of the most nutritious foods available. Just be mindful of how you select apples. Go for the fruit that’s bursting with nutrients, and enjoy a crunch that’s sure to keep your body feeling good and in apple-pie working order.