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The Healthiest Apple Variety (as Measured by Antioxidant Capacity)

While apples cannot beat the antioxidant capacity of pomegranate or the antioxidant activity of blueberries, at least not in test tubes, they are a major source of antioxidants in Western diets. In fact, a study that used the cellular antioxidant activity (CAA) assay to compare the antioxidant activity of 25 common fruits and berries found that apples, along with strawberries, were the biggest suppliers of antioxidants to the American diet. Now this comes as no surprise as apples are available year round and among the most popular fruits consumed in the United States.

But when it comes to antioxidant-rich apples, some varieties seem to be better than others. However, before you rush to declare one of these top-ranking varieties the healthiest apple, keep in mind: the lab-based assays used to measure the antioxidant capacity of foods have their limitations, as does the practice only looking at the antioxidant capacity of a food when determining how healthy, or unhealthy, the food is. Keep reading to get the full scoop.

Red Delicious and Northern Spy Apples Are Highest in Antioxidants

In an interesting study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, a group of researchers led by Dr. Rong Tsao of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Ontario compared the antioxidant capacity of eight apple varieties that are popular in Canada: Red Delicious, McIntosh, Cortland, Northern Spy, Ida Red, Golden Delicious, Mutsu and Empire. As each of the lab-based assays that are commonly used to analyze the antioxidant capacity of foods comes with its own set of limitations, the researchers used three complementary assays – the FRAP, β-CLAMS and PCL assays – in order to get a good picture of the antioxidant properties of the apples. They also looked at the total phenolic content of the apples, measured by the Folin-Ciocalteu method, and noticed that the antioxidant activity of the fruits was highly correlated with total phenolic content, which is not surprising since phenolic compounds are thought to be the main sources of antioxidants in apples.

Healthiest Apple?

After carefully analyzing the antioxidant activity of each apple variety, the researchers concluded that Red Delicious and Northern Spy apples had the strongest antioxidant properties, with Red Delicious having six times the antioxidant levels of the bottom-ranked Empire variety. In this comparison, Red Delicious and Northern Spy apples were followed by Cortland, Ida Red, Golden Delicious, McIntosh and Mutsu apples. The researchers also found that in every variety tested, the skin contained substantially higher levels of antioxidants than the flesh, so if you want to reap the maximum health benefits, be sure not to skimp on the skin!

The results of the above-described Canadian study echo the findings of an earlier study conducted by a team of scientists from Cornell University, New York. In this study, Northern Spy came on top in terms of antioxidant activity, followed by Red Delicious. Again, the Empire variety was ranked at the bottom of the list. What's great about this study is that it also looked at many apple varieties that are popular in the United States but that were not included in the Canadian study. Fuji and Gala apples, for example, were not included in the Canadian study, but in the Cornell study, both of them ranked high in terms of antioxidant activity (Fuji came 3rd and Gala 4th among the tested varieties).

Limitations of Measuring Healthiness of a Fruit by its In-Vitro Antioxidant Capacity

The findings of the two studies described above are clearly intriguing, but before you rush to declare Red Delicious or Northern Spy the healthiest apple variety on Earth, there are a few things you should keep in mind. First, though antioxidants are believed to help prevent and fight certain health problems, more research is needed to determine whether quantity alone counts. Neither of the above-mentioned studies looked at whether antioxidants in some apples may be better absorbed than others.

Second, the antioxidant content of a fruit is hardly the only indicator of how healthy, or unhealthy, the fruit is. In addition to being rich in phenolic compounds and vitamin C, which act as antioxidants, apples also contain a range of other health-giving compounds, which may be more concentrated in some apple varieties than others.

1. k. L. Wolfe et al (2008). Cellular antioxidant activity of common fruits. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 56(18), 8418-26.
2. R. Tsao et al (2005). Which Polyphenolic Compounds Contribute to the Total Antioxidant Activities of Apple? Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 53 (12), 4989-4995.
3. R. Liu, M. Eberhardt and C. Lee (2001). Antioxidant and Antiproliferative Activities of Selected New York Apple Cultivars. New York Fruit Quarterly, 9, 15-17.

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