Last week, McDonald's begins rolling out its new Happy Meals that feature apple slices as standard fare, not just by special request. The move is intended to provide kids with a more nutritious meal and thus, perhaps, to make a dent in the national obesity epidemic.
With about 220 million Happy Meals sold in the United States last year, according to a Reuters estimate, the apple growers of America are understandably thrilled. But are apples the answer to our nation's nutrition woes?
And is an apple a day likely to keep the doctor away?
The federal Dietary Guidelines suggest that most people eat 11/2 to 2 cups of fruit daily; a small apple or half a large apple counts as one cup, as does a cup of 100 percent apple juice or unsweetened applesauce. For optimal nutrition, the guidelines recommend eating a variety of fruits, because each features a different mix of nutrients.
For produce, apples aren't nutritional powerhouses: A medium-size one provides only modest amounts of the health-boosting nutrients potassium (6 percent of the recommended daily value) and Vitamin C (17 percent).
Another concern is their potential pesticide load. The Environmental Working Group, a D.C.-based environmental watchdog and advocacy organization, moved apples to the top of its list this year of the "Dirty Dozen" fruits and vegetables most likely to carry high loads of pesticide residue. The group recommends making apples one of the kinds of produce you seek organic versions of when possible.
But, says Alex Formuzis, vice president for media relations for the group, the health benefits of eating apples, organic or conventionally grown, outweigh the risks posed by pesticides. If it's a choice between eating apples and not eating apples, he says, "eat the apples."
Still, there's plenty to recommend apples:
"The original 100-calorie snack pack." That's how Dawn Undurraga, nutritionist for the Environmental Working Group, described apples. A medium one has about 95 calories, no fat and no sodium.
Fiber. "The best thing apples have going for them is soluble fiber" in the form of pectin, says Lona Sandon, an American Dietetic Association spokeswoman. Pectin, like other forms of soluble fiber, can decrease overall cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol. A medium apple has four grams of soluble fiber, most of it in the flesh.
The peel's appeal. Apples' vivid hues come from phytochemicals, plant compounds that act as antioxidants, Sandon says; most antioxidants are in the peel. Although we don't know exactly how antioxidants work, they are thought to fight inflammation, cell aging and many chronic diseases. The antioxidant quercetin in the peel is thought to be particularly potent and might fight pancreatic and prostate cancers and help maintain brain health.
Potentially potent anti oxidants. Apples are chock-full of polyphenol antioxidants, whose much-researched health benefits are not yet fully understood but appear to be powerful. Although only a few studies (and even fewer using human subjects) have established links between apple consumption and such health outcomes as reduced risk of some cancers (bowel, breast, liver, colon, pancreas and prostate), asthma, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, research is promising, and it's continuing.
Alzheimer's aid. Researchers led by Thomas Shea at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell found that serving apple juice to people with moderate to severe Alzheimer's disease helped to calm them. The short-term study found no improvement in patients' cognition. Shea notes that the juice served was made solely from whole apples; its nutrient profile was thus similar to that of whole apples. He cautions to steer clear of "juice drinks" containing apple juice, as they typically supply little nutritional benefit.
Sound nutrition, year-round. Apples are typically harvested in the fall. So are the ones you buy at the store in January still good for you? Allison Parker, director of consumer health and education for the U.S. Apple Association, says they are. Parker says apples can be stored two ways. Cold storage is like keeping them in your fridge's produce drawer (which is what she recommends), where the temperature is low and the humidity high. That slows ripening, thus keeping nutrients intact. Controlled-atmosphere storage, Parker writes in her blog, "takes advantage of the way apples 'breathe.'" In this method, apples are stored in a humid, airtight refrigerator to "fall asleep." That also preserves nutrients.
Variety. There's an apple for everyone; some prefer a tart, crisp Granny Smith, others a softer, milder Red Delicious. Although nutrient contents might vary slightly by color and variety, for the most part, an apple's an apple, Sandon says. So pick the kind you like, or mix it up to keep things interesting.