You wouldn't guess it by the typical offerings lined up at the local supermarket, but the realm of apples extends far beyond the tried-and-true. Come fall, nature explodes with 7,500 named varieties worldwide, ranging in hue from shades of purple and pink to brown. As small as walnuts or larger than softballs, apples incorporate notes of berry, pineapple, nutmeg, anise, wine, and more. In fact, to sample the full spectrum, you'd need to eat a different apple every day for more than 20 years -- not such a bad idea, when you take their health benefits into account.
Apples contain an ample dose of fiber (two-thirds of which is in the peel), some potassium, and a modest amount of vitamin C. But according to a Cornell University study, their star quality lies in a high content of antioxidants, nutrients that guard cells against damage from oxidation. One medium apple is a good source of flavonoids such as quercetin (also in the peel), which protects nerve cells from oxidative stress, suggesting that this fruit may help prevent Alzheimer's and other degenerative brain diseases. Scientists at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, even discovered that drinking just a couple glasses of apple juice can boost brain function. Studies have also linked apple consumption to protection against cancer and diabetes, as well as lung and cardiovascular health.
Researchers don't have to look much farther than their own backyards for study fodder; apples grow in each of the continental United States, with 100 varieties available commercially. Such abundance begs the question: Are some apples better for you than others? In several tests, Red Delicious got high marks for antioxidant activity, as did Northern Spy, Granny Smith, and Fuji. But don't fret if your favorite kind didn't make the grade: "When people ask me which apple is healthiest," says Tom Shea, Ph.D., director of the lab at the University of Massachusetts, "I tell them it's the one you most like to eat."
Text by Cheryl Redmond; recipes by Jody Adams; photography by Dana Gallagher