This small fruit packs a big punch—nutritionally, scientifically, and traditionally

Apples have been symbolically associated with beginnings—in the alphabet, for example, and in the Garden of Eden. So why not make them a healthy part of your new year? 

After all, there’s a reason why the saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” has been in use for hundreds of years. Indeed, research shows that apples have a bushel of health benefits. 

First of all, the pectin content in apples is an excellent source of fiber. So it’s no surprise that, like other fibrous foods, apples help with digestion and support the “good” bacteria (probiotics) in your gut.  

Plus, apples are loaded with polyphenols. The combination of these natural antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds with pectin has been shown to help prevent cancer (especially colon and breast cancer), cardiovascular disease (especially “bad” LDL cholesterol), diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive impairment.1 

Apples also help balance allergic and immune reactions like asthma by modulating the release of histamine (creating a natural “antihistamine” without any of the side effects of allergy drugs). And they can reduce the severity and duration of migraine headaches.  

If that weren’t enough, the malic acid in apples (and apple cider) is good for the musculoskeletal system, which can be helpful for fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue. And a new study shows that apples can even help reduce menopause symptoms—most likely due to the polyphenols that play an important role in estrogen production and metabolism.2   

But apples can have more than just a physical health effect. Throughout the centuries, they’ve also been key components in spiritual, mental, and emotional health traditions and lore. 

From Rosh Hashana to Rip Van Winkle 

For the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashana), one of the traditional foods is an apple dipped in honey. The apple symbolizes the Garden of Eden, which the Kabbalah refers to as “the holy apple orchard.” And the honey symbolizes the desire for a sweet year.  

Apples are rich in secular tradition as well. In one popular legend, falling asleep in an apple orchard could make you wake up a year later. And if that reminds you of Rip Van Winkle, the short story by Washington Irving published in 1819, that’s not a coincidence.  

Rip Van Winkle is a Dutch-American villager in 17th century colonial New York who meets mysterious Dutchmen (rumored to be ghosts of the crew of Henry Hudson’s ship the Half Moon), imbibes their liquor, and falls asleep in the Catskill Mountains—only to awaken 20 years later. The story doesn’t specify whether Mr. Van Winkle fell asleep in an apple orchard, but the mysterious liquor was probably apple cider. 

And then there’s the Halloween tradition of bobbing for apples, which is related to the idea that both apples and water hold links to other worlds.  

In science, there’s the famous story of Isaac Newton falling asleep under an apple tree and being hit on the head by one of the fruits. Newton was a student at Cambridge University at the time, and had gone home to his family’s rural Lincolnshire farm to escape the Great Plague of 1665-66 that was ravaging the cities of England.   

Of course, Newton’s studies (and his apple experience) led to the development of classical mechanics, or Newtonian physics. But Einstein’s new version of quantum physics produces a modernized Rip Wan Winkle story, in which a person traveling at near light speed would experience only the passage of a few years, yet would return to find centuries had passed on Earth. 

Closer to home, in 1623, the first apple orchard was planted with apple seeds from England, on Beacon Hill in Boston. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both had orchards on their plantations in Virginia. And in the early 1800s, the legend of Johnny Appleseed was based on John Chapman, who planted apple orchards on what was then the western frontier. In fact, the presence of an apple orchard was an important sign that the land was being settled. 

So my point is this: What other fruit has so much scientific evidence and traditional lore? It’s no wonder apples are so popular…and that “an apple a day” is one of the easiest, healthiest, and tastiest New Year’s resolutions you can make.   

Sources:

1“A Comprehensive Review of Apples and Apple Components and Their Relationship to Human Health.” Adv Nutr. 2011 Sep; 2(5): 408–420.

2“Higher intakes of fruits and vegetables are related to fewer menopausal symptoms: a cross-sectional study.” Menopause. 2020 May;27(5):593-604.


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