Every year at this time I fall in love again -- with apples. From mid-October and on into the winter I am a regular visitor to New York's Union Square, where one of the nation's largest green markets features a dazzling array of these once-forbidden fruits, many of them varieties that you will never find on the shelves of a supermarket. Eve would have a field day plucking apples at this Eden in lower Manhattan!
Shopping at greenmarkets offers a rare chance for city folks like me to meet farmers and learn how the foods that we enjoy get produced, so I had a chat with Jake Samascott, a fourth generation apple grower from Kinderhook in New York's Hudson Valley. The Samascott family orchard grows 60 kinds of apples on 100 acres, including several old standbys like Macintoshes and Golden Delicious, as well as other more exotic heirloom strains such as the pink-fleshed Scarlet Surprise, and the oddly-ribbed Caville Blanc. They are adding new varieties each year, including two just developed by Cornell University and not yet named.
Not all of Jake's fruits would be contenders in an apple beauty pageant. Some are gnarly, rough-skinned and have small, wheat colored blemishes on their skin, and that may be one of the reasons why most supermarkets won't carry them. But when it comes to taste, they leave their store-bought competition trailing in the dust. Apple cognoscenti know that there is an inverse relationship between cosmetic perfection and taste. The uglier the fruits are, the more likely they are to be packed with nutrition and world class flavor. Apple varieties are as subtly flavored as fine wines, and with the price at Jake's stand for most varieties $1.25 a pound, the tab for connoisseurship is a real bargain.
But price is not the only reason to stock up on apples -- another is health.
You know that squeaky clean feeling you get after you have eaten a fresh picked apple? Your gut may be telling you something important. Nutritionists have learned that the soluble fiber called pectin, as well as insoluble fibers in the meat of the apple are powerful brooms that can sweep away lots of bad stuff like LDL cholesterol from the digestive tract and liver. So marked is this cleansing effect that apple pectin was used after the Chernobyl nuclear accident to reduce the traces of radioactive cesium and Strontium 90 in Ukrainian schoolchildren.
And that's not all. There is growing evidence that apples are rich in cancer-fighting phytochemicals. Research by Cornell toxicologist Rui Hai Liu found that eating apples inhibits tumor growth in rats, and may do the same in humans as well.
A Hong Kong study has shown that antioxidants in apples known as polyphenols, which combat cellular deterioration due to aging, may help to prolong our lives and reduce the risk of heart disease. Other research has demonstrated that flavonoids in apples protect the central nervous system and may lessen the risk of developing Parkinson's disease. And there is good news about the therapeutic effects of several other compounds in apples, which combat a whole range of illness including asthma, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer's disease. One Brazilian study even showed that eating three apples a day significantly boosted the weight loss of women on a diet.
But there is one catch. Apples regularly show up on the USDA's top 10 list of the most contaminated fruits. And it may not be enough just to rinse them off. Even after being peeled, most conventionally grown apples contain traces of up to 10 different pesticides that are suspected to cause nervous system damage, cancer and hormone disruption.
One of the worst offenders is called chlorpyrifos, a known neurotoxin and carcinogen. This pesticide, marketed by Dow Chemical, was banned by the EPA, then quietly reauthorized during 2007 as a result of industry pressure, despite the fact that the EPA's own scientists acknowledged that children were particularly at risk for getting sick from exposure to chlorpyrifos. This sneak reauthorization was also bad news for farm workers, who spray the poison in commercial orchards from backpack hose sprayers.
Given the dangers from pesticides, I asked Jake Samascott whether he used them in his orchard. They do spray their trees at least once, Jake told me, generally during the blossom stage in the spring. But unlike large-scale commercial growers, they keep their chemical use to a bare minimum. He said that the "organic" grower next door to him also sprays -- far more often then he does -- with copper and sulfur-based compounds deemed "natural." So an organic label does not insure that the apples will be free from toxic chemicals. Better to know your growers, Jake Samascott recommends, whether organic or conventional, and ask them how they operate.
But not all of us have the luxury of shopping at greenmarkets from the people who produce our food. In that case, buying organic may be the best way of minimizing your risk from farm chemicals and enjoying one of nature's tastiest and most healthful treats.