All About Apples ­-- by Jo Robinson

(The following is excerpted from Eating on the Wild Side, by Jo Robinson. Published in June 2013 by Little, Brown and Company. Copyright © 2013 by Jo Robinson. All rights reserved.)

At first, American farmers were content to grow the varieties of apples they had imported from the Old World. Then they began creating the first made‐in‐America clones. To do this, they surveyed the wide variety of apple trees that had grown from the seeds of the Old World fruit and selected the best ones to clone.

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By 1910, more than fifteen thousand named varieties of apples were growing in US orchards. That number began to dwindle in the next few decades, as large orchards began to supply more of the nation’s apples. The growers found it was much more efficient to grow a small number of varieties and to favor those that produced sweet, glossy fruit that was uniform in color, size, and shape.

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Today, the number of varieties growing in the United States has been winnowed down to five hundred... fewer than fifty of these varieties are being produced in any quantity. It gets worse. Nine out of every ten apples we eat come from a mere dozen varieties. We’ve gone from fifteen thousand varieties to twelve in just three generations.

You see the same assortment of apples in store after store: Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Fuji, Gala, Braeburn, Granny Smith, Jonagold, Idared, Gravenstein, McIntosh, Cortland, and the newly popular Honeycrisp. These varieties—the twelve most common in America—are making inroads around the world as well, squeezing out more nutritious heirloom apples. The low­nutrient Golden Delicious is not only the most popular apple in the United States, it is now the top­selling apple in the world.

At long last, the loss of nutrition and variety in our modern apples is coming to the attention of food activists, pioneering apple breeders, and USDA fruit researchers. A team of fruit specialists from the Agricultural Research Service of the USDA has mounted an aggressive campaign to collect buds and cuttings from all the known species of wild apples. Their primary goal is to create new varieties that are more resistant to disease. For the first time, however, they are also gathering information about their nutritional content.

As a part of this work, they’ve gone back to Kazakhstan[1] and tested the composition of apples from a large number of Malus sieversii[2] trees. They discovered that some of the wild apples have six times more phytonutrients than our present­day variations of the same species. By going back to the source, it will be possible to begin the domestication process all over again, only this time, apple breeders will have the information they need to create twenty­first century varieties that retain more of the health benefits of the original fruit. Another encouraging sign is that heritage orchards are making a comeback, to the delight of people who choose to eat locally as well as those who are searching for apples with more complex and varied flavors than those found in the supermarket.

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More good news comes from New Zealand. In April of 2000, Mark Christensen, an accountant and longtime advocate of heirloom fruits and vegetables, discovered one of the most nutritious apple varieties in the world. Christensen was driving on North Island when he spotted an old apple tree growing by the side of the road. He stopped to take a closer look at the fruit. The apples were unlike any variety he had ever seen. Intrigued, he ate one of the apples and was pleased with its juiciness and flavor. He gathered some up to take home.

In addition to being a connoisseur of apples, Christensen has a keen interest in nutrition. He operates on the belief that “for every disease affecting human health, there will be a plant with the necessary compounds to treat the disease.” To test the disease­fighting potential of his apples, he sent some to the New Zealand Institute for Plant and Food Research for nutritional analysis. The institute tested the apples and compared them with 250 other varieties. The apples from the roadside tree had exceptionally high levels of phytonutrients. In fact, the skin of the apples had more flavonoids than any other known variety of apple and the second highest amount of beneficial compounds called proanthocyanidins. In 2006, Christensen sent the apples to the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research to see if the fruit had any potential to fight cancer. Lab tests showed that extracts of the apples reduced the growth of many different types of cancer cells, and it was more effective at destroying colon cancer cells than any other apple tested.

Christensen named the new variety Monty’s Surprise. New Zealanders call it the Full Monty because this apple has it all—great flavor, beauty, size, a bounty of phytonutrients, and the promise of being a potent weapon against cancer. Instead of patenting his find, as most plant breeders do today, Christensen and others formed the nonprofit Central Tree Crops Research Trust[3] to spread the news about the new variety and to give away young trees. To date, the foundation has donated more than eight thousand trees to New Zealanders. Plans are under way to export Monty’s Surprise to other countries, including the United States. When the apples arrive here, you will read about it in the news.

(Editor's notes): 1. Where apples originated. 2. Name of tree with original wild variety of apples. 3. Since renamed as Heritage Food Crops Research Trust. Read the full article. Read about Monty's Surprise at Heritage Food Crops Research Trust.

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