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Is there anything special about apples that gives them particular health benefits to justify this statement we all know from childhood?

Specifically:

  • Is eating an apple more healthy than any standard fruit serving?
  • Are there long-term health-benefits to adding an apple to a standard diet (not changing in any other way)?
  • Are there any risks1 associated with eating a lot of apples?

1: I actually ask this question because I tried — for 3 days — and my teeth became so sensitive I could barely brush them anymore!

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    You should never brush your teeth immediately or shortly after eating fruit. The natural acidity of the fruit will have attacked the enamel and brushing them immediately afterwards will then do damage to your teeth. See the related question on here about the us of brushing one's teeth in the morning! – Lagerbaer May 17 '11 at 21:19
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    @Lagerbaer - they were sensitive in general. I ate the apple in the morning (after brushing, earlier) and then brushed at night. – Nicole May 17 '11 at 21:20
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    Oranges are too soft, strawberries too small, and bananas unpredictible. Apples are ideal to throw them at doctors to keep them away ;) (Just anecdotal evidence - therefore no answer). – user unknown May 30 '11 at 2:01
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    When I was younger, I thought this meant that doctors were allergic to apples. – Origami Robot Jul 25 '11 at 20:46
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Some of the other answers here have been causing controversy for not addressing the question. In keeping with the StackExchange principles, this is an attempt to combine the best parts to make one full answer. I thank @jwenting, @manojlds, @joe and @Sklivvz for much of the preliminary research.

The OP asks several different questions, which I will paraphrase as:

  • Is there justification for the common saying?
  • Are apples healthier than other fruit?
  • Is eating a lot of apples risky?

Let's look at each one of those:

Q: Is there justification for the common saying?

A: It depends whether you speak English or Old English.

The phrase is thought to come from Old English, where apple used to mean any round fruit.

Phrase Finder attribute the origins of the phrase to a Welsh book from 1866, and note:

Apples may be good for us but it wasn't their precise medicinal properties that were being exalted when this phrase was coined. In Old English the word apple was used to describe any round fruit that grew on a tree.

Etymonline has a similar view of the original meaning of apple:

O.E. æppel "apple, any kind of fruit; fruit in general," from P.Gmc. *ap(a)laz (cf. O.S., O.Fris., Du. appel, O.N. eple, O.H.G. apful, Ger. Apfel), from PIE *ab(e)l "apple" (cf. Gaul. avallo "fruit;" O.Ir. ubull, Lith. obuolys, O.C.S. jabloko "apple"), but the exact relation and original sense of these is uncertain (cf. melon). In M.E. and as late as 17c., it was a generic term for all fruit other than berries but including nuts (e.g. O.E. fingeræppla “dates,” lit. “finger-apples;” M.E. appel of paradis "banana," c.1400).

If you believe this etymology (and the understanding that fruit, in general, is considered healthful, you may decide you do not care whether the (modern) apple is special.

However,

  • there are other proposed etymologies for the saying,
  • the dates (M.E and late 17th versus 1866) don't exactly line up,
  • people still say the expression today,
  • there does seem to be some early belief that apple apples (i.e. Malus domestica) did have some health benefits (see below)

so let's continue.

Q: Are apples healthier than other fruit?

A: It is impossible to make a blanket statement, but in some respects, yes.

Some features of the apples are special. No doubt, advocates of the other fruits could make alternative (and correct) health claims about their fruits as well.

For example:

The efficacy of a diet of raw apples in the treatment of diarrheal conditions in children has long been known in many parts of Germany by the populace. Occasionally brief mention of the value of raw apple has been made by medical authorities. It was first used systematically in the Kindersanatorium at Koenigfield by Sister Frieda Klimsch. Within the last three years this form of therapy has been advocated a great deal in Germany by the physicians, and several articles have appeared in the literature. All have reported favorable results.

(Alas, I haven't read enough to know whether this report actually agrees with earlier ones!)

  • In mice, it has been associated with staving off dementia. (Ref: Chan A, Graves V, Shea TB, A (Aug 2006). "Apple juice concentrate maintains acetylcholine levels following dietary compromise". Journal of Alzheimer's Disease 9 (3): 287–291. ISSN 1387-2877. PMID 16914839.)

  • In rats, it may help with cholesterol. (Ref)

  • Apple juice is less harsh on tooth enamel than orange juice.

If you are thinking this evidence is pretty weak at putting apples on a pedestal above other fruit, I agree with you. Get some other fruit and veg into you, too.

Q: Is eating a lot of apples risky?

A: Yes, it can be.

For example:

  • The same study that rates apple juice better than OJ & cola at not stripping enamel, rates diet cola even higher. (Water, having a higher pH, will rate even better, I suspect.)

  • An apple is 10% sugar (Ref), which should be considered on a calorie-controlled diet. (You are talking about eating lots of them.)

  • Some people are allergic to apples. (Presumably, this applies to small as well as large quantities.)

  • Also consider what other essential foods you will be missing out on if you eat too much fruit, in general.

  • Please consider making this community wiki – Sklivvz Jul 27 '11 at 22:58
  • Just another comment on the etymology of apple etc. In 1866, the old English meaning of apple was quite likely not in use - and therefore it is quite likely that this saying was always meant to include only melus domestica. Furthermore, when people say it today, and presumably the OP too, certainly mean literally apple and not fruit. Whatever its original meaning, it is certainly plausible that apples may be a particularly good kind of food for your health and therefore the question stands with its literal meaning. – Sklivvz Jul 27 '11 at 23:02
  • You may also want to review this site (not particularly reliable, but a good starting point) for some other virtues of the common apple. translate.google.com/… – Sklivvz Jul 27 '11 at 23:06
  • @Sklivvz: Made CW. Cast more doubt over etymology claim. Agreed that the question (that apples being healthful) still stands, and tried to address it. Looked at the translated apple claims, but was underwhelmed. Mainly applicable to all fruit or compared to bananas. I didn't want to start the whole anti-oxidant discussion here, although that may make a good separate question. – Oddthinking Jul 28 '11 at 17:03
  • Worth to point out as well, that apples - or fruits and vegetables in general - was more healthier in the past due to richer soil. After the introduction of artificial fertilizer the soil contains less of everything and none of some important minerals. In addition fruit etc. is sprayed with pesticides which increase toxicity. – epistemex Jan 9 '13 at 1:09
6

The evidence is finally in!

A new article, Association Between Apple Consumption and Physician Visits: Appealing the Conventional Wisdom That an Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away, shows the outcome of a trial that examined:

the relationship between eating an apple a day and keeping the doctor away.

Note: There is no attempt to show causation here, just correlation between US adults reporting the equivalent of a small apple daily (n=753 apple eaters, 7,646 non-apple-eaters), and the proxy measures:

no more than 1 visit (self-reported) to a physician during the past year; secondary outcomes included successful avoidance of other health care services (ie, no overnight hospital stays, visits to a mental health professional, or prescription medications).

After "adjusting for sociodemographic and health-related characteristics", they concluded:

Evidence does not support that an apple a day keeps the doctor away; however, the small fraction of US adults who eat an apple a day do appear to use fewer prescription medications.

[I carefully note the publication date is March 30th, not April 1st.]

  • a study worthy of the annals of improbable research! – jwenting Apr 1 '15 at 3:17
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There's such a thing as apple allergy (I should know, I'm allergic to them myself) which in mild cases leads to diarrhea, in severe cases requires hospitalisation.

So no, an apple a day doesn't keep the doctor away for at least some people. In fact it might bring them to the doctor.

Had to look these up, didn't know there were people who can go into cardiac arrest from eating apples.

  • +1 Well done. An absolute claim can be proven false by a single counter example. – user unknown Aug 10 '11 at 0:17
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The phrase comes from Old English where apple used to mean any round fruit actually.

Apples may be good for us but it wasn't their precise medicinal properties that were being exalted when this phrase was coined. In Old English the word apple was used to describe any round fruit that grew on a tree. Adam and Eve's forbidden fruit, which they ate in the Garden of Eden, is often described as an apple but, in the 1611 King James Version of the Bible, it is just called 'a fruit'.

http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/an-apple-a-day.html

  • not an answer (and wrong at that - we have exactly the same saying in Italian and it specifically mentions apples as well) – Sklivvz Jul 24 '11 at 16:57
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    Also, important to consider that apples have always been a common fruit cited in stories/legends/myths (think Adam & Eve, the Apple of Discord, William Tell, Newton, Snowwhite), and proverbs (as sure as God made little apples, there's small choice in rotten apples). Also, in general, apple can be used to indicate: Any fruit, or similar vegetable production but even Anything resembling an apple in form or colour; any smooth globular body of metal, glass, etc. golden apple: the orb in the British Regalia. (source: OED) – nico Jul 25 '11 at 19:04
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    That article looks quite dubious, seen that the proverb had existed for a while before J.T.Stinson... barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/… – nico Jul 25 '11 at 19:45
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    @Sklivvz - look at etymology of Apple. It refers to to fruits in general - etymonline.com/index.php?term=apple – manojlds Jul 25 '11 at 21:06
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    @Sklivvz - We are looking at origin of the phrase as well. you don't have to be so defensive. Just trying to get an answer for this question. I am not saying mine is the only answer and the only right one. I want to find an answer and get to know something. – manojlds Jul 26 '11 at 6:36
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To the question

Are there any risks associated with eating a lot of apples?

Snopes asserts that apple pips (seeds) contain "a cyanide and sugar compound that degrades into hydrogen cyanide (HCN) when metabolized".

This site claims 18 apples are sufficient but this estimates 2100 apples.

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