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Queen of the fruits

When we think of the healthiest fruits on earth, exotic names like pomegranate and acai berry come to mind. But research has shown that there are numerous and remarkable health benefits to one of the least flashiest fruits in the produce section - the apple.

"It's the queen of all fruits," said Brenda Garza, registered nurse and registered dietitian at Florida Hospital Heartland Medical Center. "Apples probably have one of the best distributions (methods) of all the nutrients."

One of the healthy components of America's second most popular fruit (bananas top the list) is pectin, an insoluble fiber known to lower LDL cholesterol. Pectin not only "grabs" bad cholesterol and carries it with it out of the body in the stool, but also helps draw out toxins, said Garza. And most of the pectin is found in the inner part of the fruit, not in the peel.

Another major health booster found in the humble apple are phytochemicals, certain chemical compounds found in plants that are protective against cancer. The more bright color in the food, the more indicative of phytochemicals.

As a result, apples with red skin have more nutritional value than those with green or yellow skin, Garza stated. Apples contain a phytochemical called polyphenol, which has a chemical structure ideal for absorbing free radicals, which are linked to cancer. Antioxidants such as vitamin C are also known to counteract free radicals, and one apple contains about 10 milligrams of vitamin C, she continued.

What many people don't realize is the synergistic effect that polyphenols have on a modest vitamin C amount. "Because of high polyphenol levels, there is a boost in that antioxidant activity. Instead of 10 milligrams it is equivalent to 2,250 milligrams of vitamin C," Garza explained.

Scientists at the American Association for Cancer Research agree that eating flavonoid-rich apples (like the Pink Lady variety) could help reduce the risk of developing pancreatic cancer by up to 23 percent. Triterpenoids, a compound found in apple peels, may particularly fight cancers of the liver, colon and breast.

Besides providing necessary fiber, lowering cholesterol and helping fight cancer, apples have been reported to have a number of additional health benefits. These relatives of the pear and members of the rose family can also help:

Fight tooth decay. Eating an apple stimulates saliva production, thereby reducing the amount of decay-causing residue on teeth.

Lower blood pressure. Apples have an anti-hypertensive effect, probably due to their high fiber and low salt levels, said Garza.

Decrease the risk of diabetes. Studies show that women who eat one or more apples a day are 28 percent less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes compared with women who don't eat apples. The soluble fiber helps normalize blood sugar swings. "The sugar in fruit is mainly fructose, which requires less insulin than glucose, and pectin allows the sugar to be released into the bloodstream more slowly," Garza said.

Regulate digestion. Whether you struggle with diarrhea, constipation or irritable bowel syndrome, apples can help. The fiber in apples can keep things moving or absorb extra water in the bowels to slow things down.

Reduce heart disease. The pectin and phytonutrient combination in apples has been shown to be particularly effective in reducing blood fats, reducing plaque build-up in blood vessels. The Iowa Women's Health Study reported a lower risk of death from both coronary and cardiovascular disease among its 34,000 participants over 20 years. Researchers in Finland also confirmed that the apple eaters in its 28-year study of more than 9,000 men and women were associated with a lower risk of stroke.

Apples also can reduce the incidence of gallstones, spur detoxification in the liver and boost the immune system. And every day researchers are finding out more about the benefits of this grocery store favorite - studies on animals suggest that components of the apple may also ward off Alzheimer's.

The benefits of this nutritional powerhouse are best enjoyed when the fruit is eaten whole, raw, right after it's been prepared. Cooked apples lose some of their nutrition, including heat-unstable vitamins like C and the B vitamins. Garza warned that even cutting the apple and leaving it out too long before eating it can pull its nutritional punch. As the apple turns brown on the kitchen counter, oxidation is occurring. "If you leave fruits out for long, you lose a big majority of that vitamin C," she said.

A favorite recipe of Garza's is her green smoothie. She blends apple juice, almond milk, frozen mangoes and spinach. "It's absolutely delicious, and it's bright green," she said.

The old adage an apple a day may be great advice for the simple fact that snacking on an apple likely keeps the snacker from reaching for something less nutritious, like chips or chocolate. Fiber-rich apples may fill you up without costing a lot of calories, and as weight goes down, health typically goes up.