Did you know the apples we get from the grocery store are 9 to 12 months old? I know it’s hard to believe and a little unnerving, but it’s true. The USDA allows a method of sophisticated food technology called controlled atmosphere storage that holds apples between 30 and 36 degrees for up to 1 year. Freshly picked apples will last a few weeks before they spoil, so this is a way to preserve them. Some fruit distributors treat their apples with a gaseous compound, 1-methylcyclopropene, which blocks the ethylene produced when fruits are ripening and aging naturally. This is the same compound that keeps broccoli from yellowing and lettuce from browning. This is how we have apples, which normally have a short season that lasts from August to October, all year long. It’s also how we get the varieties from all around the world. This may seem like a good thing, but it’s not.
The apple I’m eating may look fresh, and it may be sweet, but it certainly doesn’t taste like the freshly picked version. It also has very little nutritional content. Over time, the antioxidants and vitamins, especially vitamin C which is highly labile, degrade so there is almost no nutrition left in the year old apple. Cold storage of any produce reduces the nutritional value, and the longer it’s stored, the more it’s robbed of nutrition. This may explain why so many people I see in my practice are low in vitamin C, despite eating fruits and vegetables from the grocery store, whether organic or not.
My first apple pie recipe came out of a 1963 Betty Crocker cookbook and the first thing to do was ready a bowl of lemon juice in which to place the peeled apples to keep them from browning. 30 years ago, the apples did brown quickly when you you cut them. This was the sign that the vitamin C was oxidizing and could be prevented by the lemon juice, which is vitamin C rich. But these days, I can cut an apple and let the core sit out for several hours with minimal discoloration; a sign that very little vitamin C and anti-oxidants are present.
The best way to enjoy taste and nutrition would be to eat fresh apples in season. But that would limit our year round access, and require a huge change in food policy.
Knowing all this, I still eat apples occasionally because I love them with my aged English cheddar. I think of eating apples as I do any other sweet treat, a form of calories with a little fiber for good measure. When I think of eating nutritous fruits, I choose seasonal, local items from the farmers market, where freshness is certain. Right now, I have the last of the oranges, strawberries, blueberries and blackberries available and I’m taking full advantage of them.
It’s a sad thing that shelf life has taken priority over taste and nutrition. Only by demanding a change in food policy can we fix this. It’s a long battle and maybe we can start with A for apple.