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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Apples (But Were Afraid to Ask)

The following is an excerpt from Whole Foods Companion: A Guide for Adventurous Cooks, Curious Shoppers, and Lovers of Natural Foods by Dianne Onstad. It has been adapted for the Web.




(Malus sylvestris, M. pumila)

September fruits are on the bough
And the bright apple is king of all,
Red, golden, russet—brimming now,
Ripe for picking before they fall.
—David Squire

If you wish to make an apple pie truly from scratch, you must first invent the universe.
—Carl Sagan

Malus is the classical Greek name for a round fruit, from the Greek malon or melon; sylvestris means “of woods and forests,” and pumila means “dwarf.” The English word apple comes from the province of Italy called Abela, where the modern apple is thought to have first appeared.

General Information

Apple trees are members of the large rose family. They are probably native to the Caucasus Mountains of western Asia, and perhaps to Anatolia, the Asian part of Turkey, where carbonized apples dating to 6500 b.c. have been found. Apples came to Britain with the Roman conquest, quite possibly with Julius Caesar himself, who took a keen interest in botany. Apple orchards were planted by Roman officers within their walled gardens, but they also sprang up about the native villages, evidence of a plundered orchard here and there. The apple was introduced into Massachusetts as early as 1623 by William Blackstone, minister to the settlers at Plymouth. So important were these trees to the early colonists that by 1646 Massachusetts had passed its first law stipulating “proper punishment” for anyone robbing an apple orchard. Almost every farm had an orchard of apples, grown for fermenting into hard cider. Visitors were offered not coffee, tea, or water, but cider: it was the common drink. The spread of apple cultivation in America was encouraged by a notably eccentric personality known as Johnny Appleseed. This itinerant preacher and accomplished nurseryman was christened John Chapman in the town of Leominster, Massachusetts, in 1775. The barefoot Chapman wore an inverted mush pan hat, an old burlap bag shirt, and ragged trousers. The apple tree stock that he sold, gave away, and planted throughout the Midwest helped future generations of pioneers. At the time of his death in March 1845, he had pushed as far west as Indiana, where he died at Fort Wayne.

The most popular temperate-zone fruit, apples are grown in almost every state. Washington State, however, produces more than one-quarter of the whole U.S. apple crop. That state’s orchards supposedly began from seeds of an apple given to Captain Aemilius Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company by a young woman from London at a farewell party. To please her, he had kept the seeds and planted them at Fort Vancouver, Washington, in 1824. Only one of the seeds sprouted, and the tree in its first producing year bore only one apple but in following years bore many more. Just eight varieties account for 80 percent of domestic apple production: Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Jonathan, McIntosh, Red Delicious, Rome Beauty, Stayman, and York. American consumption of apples (and their processed products) is about 120 apples, or roughly forty pounds, annually per capita. Of fresh apples, Americans eat an average of just eighteen pounds a year— less than an apple a week. Belgians and Italians put away three times that amount, while the average person in France consumes five times as many apples, mostly in the form of fermented cider. And they fall short of the Dutch, who approach the health maxim’s idea of an apple a day.

The British have a head start on the apple revival. There the old varieties have become a symbol of resisting the uniformity imposed by three mighty forces: supermarkets, the European Union, and American-style fast food. The Agriculture Ministry is encouraging stores to stock more domestic apple varieties, and some now offer as many as forty. This initiative comes none too early. Roughly two-thirds of Britain’s orchards have been lost, and three out of five apples are imported. In North America government pomologists haven’t been deaf to the fuss. They are testing varieties with more concern for taste and developing impressive new disease-resistant varieties that will change the way apples are grown. But the folk heroes of the apple’s rebirth are the orchardists rescuing old favorites from extinction, while celebrating the best of the new imports.

Apple Nutrition Table

Buying Tips

To Henry David Thoreau, ever the grouchy purist, an apple had no spirit if not eaten under the tree from which it was picked. Nevertheless, most of us will continue to shop for apples. Purchase firm, well-colored fruit with intact stems and few or no blemishes. However, be aware that looks can be deceiving. Organic apples are more prone to have blemishes than non-organic, but the taste is far superior. Elspeth Huxley, in her 1965 book Brave New Victuals, writes, “You cannot sell a blemished apple in the supermarket, but you can sell a tasteless one provided it is shiny, smooth, even, uniform and bright.” Apples will keep for two to three weeks in the refrigerator. However, if you store a number of apples in the refrigerator, you may notice undesirable changes in their neighbors because of the ethylene gas emitted. Carrots become bitter, potatoes tend to sprout and shrivel, asparagus toughens, brown spots may appear on lettuce, and cucumbers turn yellow. Most of us buy our fruit by the pound at the supermarket. You’ll pay considerably less if you shop in quantity from growers, and that will introduce you to the arcana of bushels and pecks. One bushel equals four pecks equals approximately forty-two pounds. One pound equals two big apples, or three medium apples, or four small apples. Most apples look and feel waxy because the skin secretes a protective covering of wax; this layer serves to hold water in and keep disease out. Shoppers may confuse the dusty wax coating on an unbuffed apple with chemical residue, and supermarket apples are routinely machine-rubbed to a high gloss. Plus, not all wax jobs are natural. In the 1950s it occurred to a Yakima, Washington, shipper that apples could be waxed just like cars. His mirror-finish apples brought a dollar a box more than untreated fruit, and the practice caught on.

Culinary Uses

Apples are one of the most versatile of all fruits. They make an appearance in every manner of dish, from main courses to salads and desserts, but are especially popular for apple pie. When you cook apples, do so over low heat so that the delicate pectin, vitamins, and minerals will be preserved as much as possible. Sliced apples can be kept from turning brown by dipping them into an acidic solution such as lemon juice and water. Apple seeds are best discarded, as they contain moderate levels of cyanide. Seventy-five percent of the insecticide spray that is used on apples ends up in the core and seeds. That said, the small number of seeds in the typical core poses little risk of serious poisoning; it takes an estimated half cup of seeds to kill the average adult. It is best, however, to remove the seeds before giving apples to children.

Lore and Legend
The apple seems to have had the widest and most mystical history in the popular tales of all countries. Aphrodite bears it in her hand, as does Eve. The serpent guards it, and the dragon watches it. It is the healing fruit of the Arabian tribes, and it bestows immortality on the Turks. Greek mythology relates that the origin of the Trojan War was attributed to the Apple of Discord, a golden apple thrown down in front of an assembly of the gods by the goddess of hate, Eris. Inscribed “For the Fairest,” the apple was claimed by the three most eminent goddesses—Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. Appointed to choose the most beautiful of the three, Paris was offered power and riches by Hera, wisdom and fame by Athena, or the most beautiful woman in the world by Aphrodite. Yielding to passion, Paris chose Aphrodite. He got what he desired, but in the process started the lengthy Trojan War, since the beautiful Helen just happened to be somebody else’s wife. Another myth involves Hercules’s obtaining the golden apples from the Gardens of the Hesperides, faithfully guarded by a sleepless dragon. One of the Norse myths tells of the goddess Idun, who supplied magic apples to all the gods so that they could stay eternally young. The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, which are all taken from old folktales and myths, have at least four stories involving apples, including the famous story of Snow White.

Health Benefits

pH 3.30–4.0. Astringent, carminative, digestive, diuretic, emollient, laxative, tonic. In medicine the disinfectant and therapeutic qualities of the apple are highly valued. Naturally antitoxic, apples can modify the intestinal environment by reactivating the beneficial bacteria that normally flourish there. A highly digestible alkaline food, they have a high water content (around 85 percent), which quenches both immediate and cellular-level thirst. Fibrous, juicy, and nonsticky, they help clean the teeth and exercise the gums when eaten raw. Apples contain both malic and tartaric acids, which help to remove impurities in the liver and inhibit the growth of ferments and disease-producing bacteria in the digestive tract. They also contain pectin, a gel-forming fiber that supplies galacturonic acid to prevent the putrefaction of protein. Pectin content helps make apples an excellent intestinal broom, working as a bulking agent to gently push through the digestive tract and cleanse it along the way. This effect is particularly noticeable when impactions are present. Pectins are also powerful in protecting against the toxic effects of certain chemicals in the diet, such as cyclamates. Studies indicate that eating apples daily will help reduce skin diseases, arthritis, and various lung and asthma problems; European research shows that apple pectin binds with radioactive residues and removes them from the body, along with lead, mercury, and other toxic heavy metals. Pectin is an ingredient in the well-known antidiarrhetic medicine Kaopectate, and apples also relieve diarrhea; after diarrhea symptoms subside, applesauce or apples grated with the skin are a good first step back to solid foods. Another benefit of pectin is that it limits the amount of fat our adipose (or fatty) cells can absorb by building a “barrier” that naturally controls the buildup of fat in the body. Although the apple itself is not particularly high in iron, it contains an element that improves the assimilation of iron in companion foods. All apples, although especially green apples, cleanse the liver and gallbladder and help soften gallstones. Apple leaves contain an antibiotic that, when crushed, can temporarily substitute for a bandage. To reduce fever in children, serve them grated raw apples. To ease a dry cough, steam apples with honey. To eliminate mucus from the lungs, prepare apples with agar.


Apple cider is freshly pressed juice that has not been pasteurized or sweetened. This is the best-tasting form of apple juice, full of vitamins and free of all processed interference. Compared to store-bought apple juice, it is more flavorful but less sweet. Unlike clear, pasteurized apple juice, cider looks cloudy, and sediment often collects at the bottom of the bottle. Because it is highly perishable, it must be kept under constant refrigeration and even then may only last from ten to fourteen days. Freshly squeezed apple cider is excellent for the body and is especially helpful in cleansing or reducing diets. Beneficial for the liver and gallbladder, it tends to speed up bowel action but will produce flatulence if the bowels are not moving well. The English brought the cider habit with them to America. Since medieval times they had looked upon apples as a source of beverage rather than as something to eat, and for good reason. If you grind up a few apples and express their juice, a minor miracle of alchemy takes place: that clear, sugary liquid starts to change immediately to a cloudy brew that, left to its own devices, will pitch itself into a fizzing tempest. The end product is a complex and stable beverage, mildly alcoholic, with an agreeable bitterness. It was once the most popular beverage in America, serving in the place of water, milk, wine, and hard liquor in households and taverns. Fully fermented cider was distilled to make apple brandy, a concentrated drink that could be stored and shipped more easily. New Jersey sent more than its share through the coils, and in 1810 a local orchardist reported that Essex County alone had distilled 307,310 gallons of apple brandy. But the cider and brandy boom would not continue much longer. Temperance movements not only did away with the drink but also bowdlerized the name.

Apple juice is fresh cider that has been pasteurized to guarantee that it will not turn into hard cider or vinegar. During this process most of the cider’s vitality is lost and the sugar content is dramatically increased by the heat process or by additional sweetening. All canned and bottled fruit juices are pasteurized but need refrigeration after opening to prevent them from souring. Like most other processed foods, it is best avoided.

Hard cider has been left to ferment naturally. It can be dry or sweet, depending on the apple varieties used and whether fresh cider was added back after fermentation. The alcohol content ranges from 3 to 7 percent. European cider is usually sparkling, either bottled before fermentation is complete or perhaps with carbonation added afterward.


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