The Earlybird gets the Honeycrisp
This time of year poses one of the greatest produce dilemmas one could fathom; a veritable Sophie’s Choice of botanic proportions:
Should one allocate one’s finite capacity to eat high-fiber foods on a watermelon, peach, tomato and zucchini bender while these fleeting vestiges of summer are still available at the Farmer’s market? Or should one get a head start on the too-short Honeycrsip apple season and eat as many as one possibly can before they’re gone?
Such is the quandry I find myself in this week, now that Honeycrisp apples have just made their first appearances in the New York City Greenmarkets.
Not all Apples are Created Equal
Let’s start with the birds and the bees of apples. In our topsy-turvy world, apples are bred, not born. In other words, you don’t just plant a Macintosh apple seed and grow a Macintosh apple. When left to their own devices to reproduce in the wild, appleseeds produce rebellious offspring; the resulting fruits of apple trees planted from seed will not necessarily share the same characteristics as their parent trees’ apples. As a result, commercial apple breeds are grafted: in other words, the tissue of one plant is placed into contact with the tissue of another plant, they fuse together to produce a single plant, and the fruit that is borne out can be predicted and controlled. Unfortunately, the global apple gatekeepers underestimate our collective appetite for a diverse assortment of different apple varieties, and in their tyrannical quest for visually appealing, consistently-sized apples, they choose only to propagate a tiny fraction of the magnificent apple cultivars that once existed on our planet. And it’s not even the tastiest fraction at that. (Yes, I’m talking to you, Red Delicious apples.)
(For an excellent–and entertaining–account of American Apple History and a state of the current global Applescape, I strongly recommend reading Chapter 1 in Michael Pollan’s book “The Botany of Desire.”)
Fortunately, the clever researchers at the University of Minnesota heard our collective cries for apple diversity, and bred a fabulous new variety of apple called the Honeycrisp. They made it by grafting together a Haralson and a Honeygold to produce a hybrid, which they then combined with a Macoun. (Don’t try to splice your own, though, amateur apple-breeders: the University of Minnesota owns the license.) If you live in the Northeast and haven’t experienced the divine pleasure that is biting into a Honeycrisp, get yourself to a Farmer’s Market pronto. (While Honeycrisps are also grown in Minnesota, Michigan, Washington State and some other midwestern and East coast states, your growing season may be a little different, so check with your local farmers to see when they’ll arrive in a bushel near you.) Better yet, check out your local U-pick farm and pick yourself a bushel of them this weekend. To find an orchard near you for picking, you can search the “All about Apples” website by state, and then call/e-mail an orchard near you that grows Honeycrisps to see when your favorite apple variety is being picked, and whether they allow self-picking.
Honeycrisps are among the first apple varieties to ripen, so by the time you start to get in the mood for apple picking around Halloween time, these delicious beauties will be long gone from the U-pick trees, and their days at the
Farmer’s Market will be numbered, too. Thankfully, their popularity has led farmers to plant more Honeycrisp trees, so the supply isn’t nearly as limited as it used to be; Just a few years ago, Honeycrisps made only about a 3-4 week appearance in NYC before disappearing for the year. If memory serves, last year, the local ones lasted through early/mid November in the Farmer’s Market, and were then supplemented by Washington State grown Honeycrisps in Whole Foods for another month after that. Still, by the time the holidays roll around, we’re still likely to be facing a solid 3-4 months of bleak, Honeycrispless winter months during which time we’ll just have to drown our sorrows in Clementines by the crateful. Unless, of course, you hoard them as I do; Honeycrisps will last a solid 4-6 months in your fridge.
So what is it about the Honeycrisp that inspires such a cult following? Well, it starts with the texture. Honeycrisps are a very hard, crisp apple. In fact, the New York State Apple Association website captures it perfectly when it describes this variety as “explosively crisp” and having a characteristic ability to “shatter” when bitten into, as if it “snaps apart… and comes off the core in chunks.” In that respect, think of biting into a Honeycrisp as producing the same effect as snapping off a piece of a perfectly tempered chocolate bar: that sound… that snap… it’s perfection. Of course, that’s just the beginning. Honeycrisps positively drip with juice, and they’re sweet with just the right balance of tartness. They are a brilliant addition to the American applescape, and hopefully an example to apple-growers that if they offer us delicious new apple varieties, we will buy them and we will eat them. In fact, the inside scoop is that the U of M researchers were so encouraged by their blockbuster Honeycrisp success, that this year they released a sequel called the SweeTango. It should be piloting now in Minnesota, and if it does well, is planned to launch onto the national scene in 2010 or 2011. You heard it here first!
An Apple a Day
The health benefits of apples are pretty well-established scientifically.
For starters, apples are an excellent source of fiber: both the cholesterol-lowering kind (soluble) as well as the digestive regularity-promoting kind if you eat the skin (insoluble). Studies suggest that even just 3 apples per week (or, an apple every other day) is enough to have a LDL-cholesterol lowering effect. 1 medium apple (5oz) has 4g of fiber, but bear in mind that most apples you come across in the supermarket are likely to be bigger than this. In fact, one large-ish apple can easily count as 2 fruit servings, which is an efficient way for you to meet your daily fruit intake targets… but a note of caution to people with diabetes who need to control their carbohydrate intake. 4oz of apple counts as 1 carbohydrate exchange for people with diabetes, which is roughly the size equivalent of a tennis ball. (And let’s be honest, with American fruit being bred to look like it’s on steroids, when’s the last time you saw an apple that small?)
What you may be less aware of is the high antioxidant content of apples. Apples contain multiple phytochemicals that have an antioxidant effect in the body, the most famous of which is called quercetin. (This compound is also found in onions). In fact, gram for gram, apples have higher antioxidant capacity than red grapes, strawberries and oranges. Furthermore, apples appear to have among the highest levels of a particularly bioavailable type of phytochemical (called free phenolic acids), meaning that the antioxidants in apples are highly absorbable by our bodies. Even better, apples hardly lose any of their antioxidant content even after months post-picking, so long as they are stored properly refrigerated.
As far as how this antioxidant content translates into actual health benefits, epidemiological evidence has linked 1-apple-per-day intake to a lower risk of developing lung cancer, particularly in women and possibly in men as well (so here’s a shout-out to all of you reformed smokers trying to undo the damage: eat that apple a day!). The lung cancer connection is suggestive of a more general benefit on pulmonary health that research has attributed to apple-eating. Higher apple intake has been associated with decreased risk of asthma, lower incidence of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and generally better lung function… even in smokers.
Other epidemiological studies have shown an inverse relationship between apple intake and the risk of cardiovascular disease: the more apples, the lower the risk. Ditto for the risk of developing Type II Diabetes.
How about them apples?
Now, it’s important to remember that much of an apple’s antioxidant content is stored in its skin, so if you peel your apples, you’ll be losing a large percentage of the fruit’s antioxidant power.
But it’s also worth mentioning that apples have made the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list for being among the most pesticide-heavy fruits out there.
So rather than peel away some of the fiber and most of the antioxidants from your apples, I’d recommend a) seeking out organic apple varieties whenever possible (especially for children), and b) in the absence of organic options, be sure to wash your apple very thoroughly before eating it… peel and all.Did you like this? If so, please bookmark it, RSS feed.