If reduced risk for several chronic diseases and abundant nutrients and nutritional benefits help keep the doctor away, research indicates that apples easily meet that criteria. Apples are a standout food to prevent disease and promote health, and they’re most in season and at the peak of their flavor in the United States during autumn.
However, there are red flag issues with apples most people are not aware of. Apples are consistently on the Environmental Working Group’s list of produce items with the highest concentrations of harmful pesticides, and some apples on the market are now genetically modified, which a significant percentage of the population wants to avoid.
What follows is a complete rundown on apples: their many benefits along with cautions about the potential risks from the modern use of pesticides and genetic modification.
A Rich Source of Phytochemicals
Apples are a widely consumed, rich source of vitamins C and E, potassium, magnesium, and phytochemicals, non-nutrient plant compounds that confer many health benefits. Thousands of phytochemicals have been identified in foods, yet there are still many that have not been identified.
Flavonoids, powerful antioxidants that help fight off free radicals that damage and age the body, are a major type of phytochemicals found in apples. In a Finnish study of approximately 10,000 people, flavonoid intake was associated with a lower total mortality. Apples were one of the main sources of dietary flavonoids that showed the strongest associations with decreased mortality, or in other words, longer lives.
Apples For Weight Loss
Apples are high in water and dietary fiber, which makes them filling. They are also lower in carbohydrates and calories than other sources of carbohydrates such as grains and beans. For these reasons, eating them may help with weight control.
In one study, eating whole apples increased feelings of fullness for up to four hours longer than consuming equal amounts of apple juice or puree. This happened because whole apples reduce gastric emptying, the rate at which your stomach empties its contents.
Experiments on animals and humans have shown that eating apples in different forms can cause weight loss in overweight subjects, and some studies suggest that the polyphenols in apples may have anti-obesity effects.
Reduced Risk of Cancer and Other Diseases
“In numerous epidemiological studies, apples have been associated with a decreased risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and asthma,” summarized a scientific research review published in Nutrition Journal.
“In vitro and animal studies have demonstrated that apples have high antioxidant activity, can inhibit cancer cell proliferation, decrease lipid oxidation, and lower cholesterol, potentially explaining their role in reducing risk of chronic disease,” it continued
Human and animal studies suggest that eating apples may improve blood vessel function, cholesterol metabolism, and inflammation—factors that may explain their protective effects against cardiovascular disease. Research from 2015 suggests that the fiber and polyphenols in apples benefit gut microbiome composition, which also may play a previously unrecognized role in reducing cardiovascular disease risk factors.
In terms of cancer protection, a 2011 review article entitled “A Comprehensive Review of Apples and Apple Components and Their Relationship to Human Health” explained there are “multiple plausible mechanisms” by which apples might reduce risk of cancer in humans. Test-tube studies suggest that apple polyphenols keep cancerous cells from multiplying. This effect from their polyphenols along with apples’ antioxidant properties are believed to exert “chemopreventive” activity, lowering a person’s risk of developing cancer or keeping it from coming back. Apple pectin fiber may help provide other cancer-fighting properties.
With lung disorders, particularly asthma, researchers believe that lungs are particularly susceptible to damage due to high and continual exposure to oxygen. Apples might protect lung function and help prevent inflammatory and allergenic lung diseases like asthma because of their antioxidant potential and phytochemical content.
Other Health Benefits
A large ongoing trial found that women who ate one apple per day had a 28 percent lower risk of Type 2 diabetes compared to those who consumed no apples.
The previously mentioned 2011 review article summarized studies that suggest that apples may have beneficial effects on outcomes related to Alzheimer’s disease, cognitive decline in aging, and bone health.
That same review article concluded that the data related to apple products and disease risk reduction are “provocative and varied.” The combined phytochemical and nutrient profiles in apples suggest “their potential to be powerful in the prevention of several chronic conditions in humans.”
Beware of the Pesticides
As beneficial as research shows apples to be, many synthetic chemical pesticides are applied to non-organic apples, which may offset some of their benefits or add new health risks.
Each year since 2004, the Environmental Working Group has updated its Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce and compiled a “Dirty Dozen” list of the produce items with the most pesticide residues. Apples are generally near the top of the list because they contain an average of 4.4 pesticide residues, including some at high concentrations. Apples were, once again, on the Dirty Dozen list in 2022.
Tests of raw apples conducted by Department of Agriculture scientists in 2016 found diphenylamine on 80 percent of them. Diphenylamine is a controversial chemical that was restricted on European imported apples beginning in 2014.
But pesticide concerns go far beyond diphenylamine. A database of pesticides used on different crops in the United States, compiled by Beyond Pesticides, show that although apples grown with toxic chemicals sometimes may have low pesticide residues:
- There are 109 different pesticides that can be used on apples;
- 94 of the pesticides, including the problematic herbicide glyphosate, are linked to chronic health problems (such as cancer);
- 39 of the pesticides are acutely toxic, creating a hazardous environment for farmworkers.
Many of the pesticides used on apples are also harmful to wildlife and the environment. According to the database:
- 92 of the pesticides that can be used on apples are poisonous to wildlife;
- 44 are considered toxic to honey bees and other insect pollinators;
- 25 contaminate streams or groundwater.
While not all the pesticides on the list are applied to all apples, there is no way to tell which pesticides are applied to any given conventional apple on your store shelf. The main ways to protect yourself are to buy organic, or to talk to local apple farmers about the pesticides they use.
Genetically Modified Apples
Another relatively new issue is the introduction of genetically modified (GM) apples engineered for a purely cosmetic effect. These apples are rarely clearly labeled GM.
The Arctic® apple, developed by Okanagan Specialty Fruits, is an apple that has been genetically modified to not immediately turn brown when cut or bruised. This modification utilizes a relatively new genetic engineering technology known as RNA interference (RNAi), which interferes with the fruit’s natural production of an enzyme that causes browning (ie, polyphenol oxidase [PPO]) by silencing the PPO genes that express it, thereby sharply reducing the amount of the enzyme present in the apple, according to The Non-GMO Project. The apples, which are slated to be sold as grab-and-go, pre-cut slices or cubes, have the name Arctic®, a logo, and a square QR code on packages.
The Center for Food Safety said that the USDA’s environmental assessment was inadequate and that proper characterization of the PPO genes, their functions and the impacts of silencing them in the apple tree as a whole was not conducted before these apples were allowed on the market in the United States. The center noted that PPO genes have been shown in other plants to be associated with pathogen resistance, and that silencing them could lead to more susceptibility to disease and pests, possibly resulting in increased use of pesticides on GM apples.
About half of US adults are wary of health effects of genetically modified foods, according to Pew Research Center surveysand nearly half of US consumers at least somewhat avoid GMOs, according to a 2018 survey. The short-term and long-term health and environmental effects of silencing a gene in apples are not known.
Furthermore, the non-browning cosmetic effect is unnecessary because there are other ways to prevent apples from browning when sliced: for example, spritz sliced apples with a little lemon juice or another form of vitamin C.
If you want to purchase apples that don’t easily brown when cut, try naturally non-browning opal apples, a non-GMO variety produced using natural breeding techniques. They are a warm golden yellow color and similar in flavor to Honeycrisp apples.
A key way to avoid both pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is to purchase organic. The use of synthetic chemical pesticides and GMOs is prohibited in USDA Organic certified foods.
Get the Most Benefits from Apples
Apples are powerful, nutrient-rich, disease-preventing foods. To reap the most health benefits from them with the lowest level of potential risks, eat apples in their whole-food form with the skin on, where the highest amounts of their most protective nutrients are found, and buy organic varieties.