Let's free-associate for a moment. (Oh, come on, pretend it's the '60s.) When I say the word "Apple," what comes to your mind?
What's that? "Pie," "crisp," "fall," "sauce," "baked"?
No one thought of "soup," "salad," "summer," or "grill"?
Really, you must think again. Because apples are arriving year-round on produce counters, and there are more varieties available than you might imagine -- including Granny Smiths, Braeburns, galas and Fijis from New Zealand, Australia, South American and Africa. It's true that apples are harvested in the fall -- but it is fall in the Southern Hemisphere. So besides the usual domestic varieties, which were picked last fall and stored, there are fresh new apples to sample.
"We're eating just a lot more apples than we used to," says Dennis Shields, an agricultural economist with the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C.
Per capita consumption of apples has risen from just over 17 pounds in 1970 to nearly 20 pounds in the latest accounting period, through March of this year, according to USDA figures.
The United States both imports and exports apples, and "imports have been coming up quite a bit" in recent years, Mr. Shields says. However, a shortfall in the European apple crop last year means domestic growers have found expanded markets as well. "We doubled our exports to Europe this year," Mr. Shields says.
Canada, New Zealand and Chile are the major suppliers of apples imported to the United States, USDA figures show. For July of last year, New Zealand supplied about 77 percent of imports; Canada supplied about 7 percent. Chilean apple exports were negligible last year, but for 1990, Chilean apples accounted for about 1 or 2 percent of the total.
The total supply of fresh apples in the United States for 1991 and through March of this year was nearly 5.8 billion pounds. Imports totaled 238.3 million pounds; exports were 810.6 million pounds.
Apples of all varieties have a lot going for them. For one thing, an average apple, about a third of a pound, has only 80 calories, less than 0.5 grams of fat, and no cholesterol. It also contains about 21 grams of carbohydrate, 8 milligrams of vitamin C, and 159 milligrams of potassium.
But it's the triple whammy of fiber, pectin and malic acid that makes apples a powerful force for healthful eating. A study prepared for FBI Foods Ltd. of Montreal, a major importer to North America of fresh Granny Smith apples, by British nutritionist Jane Firbank, explains why:
"About 97 percent of an apple is juice -- the rest is fiber, which makes up the peel and the cells within which the juice is trapped," the study says. "Its crunchy quality helps satisfy appetite in the mouth and hunger in the stomach; an apple before a meal takes the edge off appetite, whereas apple juice before a meal stimulates appetite." Fiber speeds food's "transit time" through the digestive system, reducing energy absorption -- great news for dieters. But the real benefit of fiber is what adequate consumption of it can help prevent: all sorts of digestive tract diseases, including diverticulosis (a chronic bowel infection) and possibly cancer.
Pectin, a vegetable fiber that aids digestion, "has been shown to improve the way the liver deals with cholesterol," the report says, and may be responsibly for apples' apparent ability to lower cholesterol levels in the blood. It cites a French study in which subjects with high cholesterol levels who ate three apples a day experienced average decreases of 16 percent in blood cholesterol levels.
Pectin has another valuable quality: It helps remove toxic substances, such as aluminum, radioactivity and lead from the body. Children (and U.S. presidents) who don't like broccoli or other cruciform vegetables that are noted for helping the body get rid of lead might be happy eating an apple.
Malic acid is "a potent germicide," the report says, helping kill harmful bacteria between teeth as well as in the intestines.
And finally, apples are also appealing on the bottom line. Mark Roeder, spokesman for Giant Food, said his chain's produce buyer told him that under normal conditions, prices don't vary much between summer and winter apples. Giant has stocked Braeburns and Granny Smiths and plans to stock other imported varieties as they become available. A day or so ago a pound of apples -- any variety -- was $1.19. There are three to four apples to a pound, and most recipes call for two to five -- less than $2 worth.
Any way you slice 'em, apples are a good dietary bet.