All-time favourites, apples and pears, are a true staple in our diets. Both are native to Eurasia and have a long history of cultivation, spanning millennia. Their fruits are some of the most sustainable you can get if you buy local produce, keep for a long time if stored under the right conditions – and offer a wonderfully nutritious snack.
Apple & Pear Alchemy
Apples and pears come from the same botanical family and are nutritionally very similar – a great source of fibre, a good source of vitamin C (a medium-sized apple or pear provides about a fifth of your recommended daily intake) and contain small amounts of many other essential nutrients. Their main strength, however, really lies in the wealth of phytonutrients they offer – phenolic compounds which have beneficial health effects and the red varieties of both fruits offer an extra dose!
The special power of phenolic compounds is antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, which means they help to protect our tissues, including blood vessels, from damage. In addition, they encourage the growth of friendly bacteria in our gut and these bacteria, in turn, produce health-beneficial by-products that help our immune system and fight inflammation. It’s also been suggested that phenolic compounds may help to protect us from cancer.
The skin of apples and pears contains three to four times as much of these magical compounds as the fruit flesh so you know what to do – eat them whole, no peeling!
Due to their excellent fibre content, apples and pears are great for your digestive system – making you fuller for longer, providing a good energy source as the fibre slows down natural sugar digestion and also helps to keep you ‘regular’. Again, much of this lovely fibre is in the skin so another reason not to peel!
You’ve probably noticed the fine granular consistency of pears. In case you’ve wondered what it is, these harder grains are clusters of so-called stone cells, which are simply cells that naturally thicken over time and so eventually the entire cell is filled with this harder ‘cell wall’ material. Their function is to support the fruit’s structure. Other fruits contain these stone cells too but because there are clusters of them in pears, they are more noticeable.
Some people devour the entire fruit, including the core, but is it safe to do so? Apple and pear seeds contain amygdalin, a substance that releases the toxic cyanide in the digestive tract. If you swallow the seeds whole, the hard outer layer is too tough for digestive enzymes to get through but if you chew them, amygdalin is released into the body producing tiny amounts of cyanide.
There’s no reason to worry as the amount of potential cyanide these pips release is so small that your body can detoxify it in no time and therefore it poses no threat. You’d need to finely chew and eat about 200 apple seeds for the amount of cyanide to be truly dangerous. Pear seeds contain even less amygdalin so are even safer to eat!
To Juice or Not to Juice?
When you juice the fruit, you lose much of its goodness, including most of the phenolic compounds and fibre. If you prefer to drink your fruit rather than eat it, it’s best to blend it into a freshly made smoothie – that way you keep all the nutrients.
Fresh juice would be the next best thing as it retains at least some of the phenolic compounds but all other types of juice are a little more than just sweet water so they’re best avoided.
Fresh, Local or Organic?
Apples and pears are highly seasonal and usually harvested between August and October. Their natural shelf life is a few weeks at most so much of the harvest is stored under special conditions that make it last up to a year. The fruit storage facilities have a strictly controlled temperature, air humidity and a special chemical atmosphere that prevents the fruit from ripening and rotting. Once the fruit is taken out of these conditions, the ripening process resumes.
There’s been much debate about how the storage conditions affect the nutrient content but experts agree that the longer the fruit is stored, the less antioxidants it retains. So if your apples are a year old, they may have lost most of their nutritional power. We’ve gotten used to apples and pears being available all year long but it’s only in late summer and autumn that they are truly fresh and at their best.
When it comes to locality and how the fruit is grown, we often face a tough choice – buy non-organic English apples or organic apples from Chile or Argentina? Of course, the best option is local and organic but if that’s not available, buying local apples and giving them a good wash before eating is probably better. If you want to be extra thorough, mix some baking soda with water and use that solution for washing your apples and pears – it’s been shown to remove most of the chemicals from the peel.
Dried apple and pear slices make for a delicious snack and are great for travelling. The absolutely best option is the simplest – just the dried fruit with nothing added. This method allows for natural browning of the fruit to occur but there’s nothing wrong with that!
To make dried fruit look prettier, retain its colour and lose a little less water in the drying process, many producers treat it with sulphur dioxide (SO2 or E220). Also known as sulphite, it is a widely used preservative and is accepted as safe unless you’re sensitive to it. People with asthma are particularly likely to have a sensitivity to sulphur dioxide and it can trigger an attack.
But it’s not just asthmatics who can suffer as others may also have this sensitivity, which causes wheezing and difficulty in breathing. The solution is to avoid sulphur dioxide – always check the ingredients!
Organic dried fruit contains no sulphites so you’re always on the safe ground here. Alternatively, make your own! Slice apples and pears in thin slices, spread them on a baking sheet or teatowel and leave in a warm, dry place with plenty of air or put them in a slightly open oven turned on very low heat (60-70°C) to speed up the drying process – but be careful not to actually bake them!