If there is one thing that we do exceptionally well in Britain, it’s growing apples. I love seeing a fully-laden apple tree poking out unexpectedly behind a garden fence, and feeling the excitement of that first taste of the new season varieties. They always seem so much juicier and more flavourful eaten now than they are after months of storage in a cold facility – and although perfect on their own, deliciously raw (and one of nature’s finest ‘fast foods’), they are also a remarkably versatile ingredient with a surprising host of health benefits too. We have all heard the phrase ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’, so is there any truth behind it? And if so, how can we optimise its benefits?
As well as being a great source of vitamins A & C, apples are packed full of soluble fibre, predominantly in the form of pectin. This fibre remains undigested until it reaches the large bowel, where it then becomes a key source of nutrients for our beneficial gut bacteria (which we now know play a key role in many aspects of health and disease). Don’t forget – you need to eat the whole apple, skin and all, to get the maximum fibre benefits (and if you do this, you then don’t need to worry too much about the fruit sugar content – fibre slows down its absorption).
As a by-product of this fibre digestion, our gut bugs then release beneficial compounds called short-chain fatty acids (SCFA). These are considered to have all sorts of healthy effects, from directly nourishing colon cells, to reducing the risk of developing gastrointestinal disorders, cancers and even cardiovascular disease (Wong et al., 2006). Apples are thought to contain a particularly good type of fibre to optimise the release of SCFA, with one study showing them to be even better than oat or corn fibre (Titgemeyer et al., 1991). In another study, some willing volunteers were given 2 apples a day for 2 weeks. At the end of the study, even the composition and concentrations of their friendly gut bacteria had improved (Shinohara et al., 2010). Apples, particularly if they are stewed (which makes them easier to digest), are therefore considered a fantastic prebiotic food to improve overall gut health. If you are suffering from digestive troubles, how about trying a portion of stewed apples a day for the next two weeks and seeing how you feel? Take a look at my recipe below for a delicious twist on this classic autumnal dish – perfect for breakfast or pudding.
Polyphenols & antioxidants
If possible, try to buy organic apples, as organic fruit have been found to have much higher beneficial polyphenol* levels than conventionally grown ones (Briviba et al., 2007) (Hecke et al., 2006). Also, although there are only around 12 apple varieties conventionally grown (things like Gala, Granny Smith and Pink Lady), there are over 400 apples grown organically, which offers a far wider flavour range (and the opportunity to try out all sorts of new apples – you never know, you might stumble across a new favourite!) (Hecke e al., 2006). Farmers markets are a great place to start, or if you have the space, how about planting a heritage variety tree yourself?
*Polyphenols: Plant chemicals, which are not the more commonly recognised vitamins, minerals or macronutrients (like carbohydrates or proteins), but which nonetheless have health benefits when consumed. They are generally considered to be antioxidants, but have a number of other healthful effects too, from improving cholesterol to reducing the risk of stroke and heart attack (Hecke et al., 2006). Interestingly, it is these polyphenols that are responsible for the browning of the fruit when it is cut. Also, try to eat the apple peel as often as possible – this is where the healthful polyphenols are at their highest concentration.
So, what is the take home message?
Apples are a great, nutritious and easily available health food, but try to remember to:
- Eat them with their skins on as much as possible Look out for organic, heritage varieties
- Minimise their use in juices or smoothies, as this wastes or interferes with all their beneficial fibre content and can lead to blood sugar spikes
- Enjoy stewed apples for its gut-friendly properties
TOP TIP: Do you know anyone who suffers from gout? Whole apples contain malic acid, a compound which one study found may help dissolve uric acid (the culprit behind gout), which may offer some relief to those suffering from this painful condition (Buchter-Weisbrodt and Scober, 1998).
Here are my 3 delicious things to do with apples:
Crisp Apple & Fennel Salad with Turmeric Dressing
I never subscribe to the notion that salads are just for summer, and as the seasons change I always find a way to make a perfect plate out of natures offerings. This salad is the perfect combination of crunchy, creamy, & nutty topped with this earthy and vibrant turmeric dressing. It’s a real autumnal celebration on a plate.
If you don’t have kale, try cabbage or watercress. Fennel could easily be replaced by slivers of shaved carrot. I think this dressing is amazing and worth making, especially if you can fine fresh turmeric but if you are short on time, drizzle with good olive oil and dash of apple cider vinegar.
Recipe Serves 3-4
For the salad:
- 1 big head of fennel, trimmed, quartered and finely sliced
- 2 apples, cored and thinly sliced
- juice of ½ a lemon
- 150g kale or cavolo nero
- 2 shallot, finely diced
- 1 avocado, sliced
- 30g pistachios, chopped
For the dressing
- 15g piece of fresh turmeric, peeled and roughly chopped, or ½ tsp ground turmeric
- 10g piece of ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
- 3 tbsp tahini
- 1 tsp honey
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1 tsp Maldon salt
Apple & Plum Crumble with Vanilla Custard (Gluten Free)
For the crumble, you’ll need:
- 7 or 8 apples (800g) peeled, cored and cut into chunks.
- zest and juice of 1 lemon
- ½ tsp cinnamon
- 2 tbsp coconut sugar
- 5 or 6 plums (500g) stone removed and cut into chunks
- 100g gluten free oats
- 100g gluten free oat bran
- 100g mixed seeds
- 70g coconut sugar
- 120g cuisine coconut oil
- Pre heat the oven to 180/160c fan.
- In a pan, gently cook the apple, lemon zest, juice, coconut sugar and cinnamon with 3-4 tbsp water for about 8 minutes stirring occasionally until slightly softened.
- Mix the oats, oat bran, mixed seeds, sugar and coconut oil in a bowl with your hands until combined.
- Tip the cooked apples into a deep oven proof dish and mix in the plums.
- Sprinkle the crumble on top, without pressing it down and bake for 30-40 minutes, until golden and bubbling at the edges.
For the custard, you’ll need:
- 1 tsp ground arrowroot
- 400ml almond milk
- 2 tbsp coconut sugar/syrup
- 1 tsp vanilla extract or paste
- 4 large egg yolks, beaten
- Mix the arrowroot with 2 tsp cold almond milk to a paste and add this to a pan with the rest of the almond milk, coconut sugar and vanilla extract and heat just about simmering.
- Pour this into the bowl of beaten eggs, whisking vigorously then tip back into the pan and heat through, stirring constantly until the custard thickens. Do not let it boil or it will curdle.
- Tip into a jug or bowl until ready to use.
Spiced Apple Sauce
This is a versatile sauce, equally delicious with yoghurt and granola for breakfast as it is with succulent pork or duck. Make a large batch if you have a glut of apples and freeze in small tubs.
Makes 7 portions
- 8 Apples, cored, peeled and chopped
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 star anise
- 3 tbsp raisins
- 250ml water
Cook all the ingredients in a heavy bottomed pan for 20 – 25 minutes, stirring every now and then so it doesn’t stick on the bottom. Remove the cinnamon and star anise and store in an airtight container in the fridge for 3-4 days or freeze in small portions.
Briviba, K., Stracke, B., Rüfer, C., Watzl, B., Weibel, F. and Bub, A. (2007) ‘Effect of consumption of organically and conventionally produced apples on antioxidant activity and DNA damage in humans’, Journal of agricultural and food chemistry., 55(19), pp. 7716–21.
Buchter-Weisbrodt, H. and Schöber, U. (1998) ‘Der Apfel – ein bewährtes Hausmittel neu entdeckt.’, Trias Verlag Stuttgart., .
Hecke, K., Herbinger, K., Veberic, R., Trobec, M., Toplak, H. and Stampar, F. (2006) ‘Sugar-, acid- and phenol contents in apple cultivars from organic and integrated fruit cultivation’, European journal of clinical nutrition., 60(9), pp. 1136–40.
Shinohara, K., Ohashi, Y., Kawasumi, K., Terada, A. and Fujisawa, T. (2010) ‘Effect of apple intake on fecal microbiota and metabolites in humans’, Anaerobe., 16(5), pp. 510–5.
Titgemeyer, E.C., Bourquin, L.D., Fahey, G.C. and Garleb, K.A. (1991) ‘Fermentability of various fiber sources by human fecal bacteria in vitro’, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 53(6), pp. 1418–1424.
Wong, J., Souza, de, Kendall, C., Emam, A. and Jenkins, D. (2006) ‘Colonic health: Fermentation and short chain fatty acids’, Journal of clinical gastroenterology., 40(3), pp. 235–43.
Photo credit: Emma Godwin