Up Close & Edible: Apples

To peel or not to peel? For apple lovers, that is the question. An apple's peel contains many important nutrients that, according to new research, can help fight cancer. But the apple has also gotten flack for its heavy pesticide content, which can be reduced by tossing the peel in the trash. What is an apple eater to do?

In general, apples are a pretty healthy—and popular—snacking decision. The average American ate just under 17 pounds of fresh apples in 2005 alone, according to the U.S. Apple Association. Nutritionally, they're making a wise choice: the apple is low in calories, high in fiber and a good source for potassium and vitamin C.

"In terms of getting fiber, it's a great choice," says Marisa Moore, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "It's also good for potassium, which most people don't get enough of."

And there's good news about apple peels: a number of studies at Cornell University have found that that eating apples may help reduce the risk of cancer. The latest study, published this month in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, identified a number of compounds in the apple's peel that work together to either inhibit or kill cancer cells. "We're changing the old saying: an apple a day keeps the doctor away," says Dr. Rai Hai Liu, a Cornell associate professor of food science and lead author of the study. "Now it might be: an apple a day keeps cancer at bay. We think that the reason apples have such high anti-cancer activity might be cause of the additive effect of these different things."

But your daily apple may also come with some undesirable additives. Apples are the second most pesticide-ridden fruit, after peaches, according to rankings by The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington-based nonprofit. A single apple can contain as many as 12 different pesticides, even after washing.

"The things you worry about with pesticides are kids," says  Richard Wilde, the organization's executive director. Some of the chemicals used are toxic to the nervous system. We don't want to expose 2-year-olds to that." However, rather than leaving apples out of your child's lunch, Wilde suggests going organic for this and other high-pesticide foods. (To find out more from the EWG about produce and pesticides, visit their Web site.)

The bottom line, he says, is making sure you get enough fruits and vegetables in the safest way possible.  "Eat your fruits and vegetables, just like your mom told you," says Wilde. "But just try and do so in a way that lowers the potential number of pesticides."