Apples for Prebiotics: A Flavorful Way to Help Your Gut Health

Apples for prebiotics may be what you need to improve your gut and overall health. I've said often that gut health is always a priority for me, and that is especially true during very stressful times. Since we all live with some form of daily stress, implementing beneficial things into our routines to maintain homeostasis is a good idea, and increasing more of those things during extreme stress is a great idea. Apples can be one of those things.

Although the old proverb of "An apple a day keeps the doctor away" may seem elementary, there is a lot of truth in it. Apples (Malus domestica) are not as mysterious as goji or acai berries, as glamorous as strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries, or as cherished as summertime watermelons and cantaloupes. In fact, apples may seem somewhat boring, because there always seem to be at least a few varieties of them available in the grocery stores year-round. Don't overlook their value, however, just because them seem ordinary.

While eating one apple per day may not keep the doctor away, odds are it may just give your body the health boost it needs. Studies support the view that frequent apple consumption is associated with a reduced risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, specific cancers, and diabetes, as apples may positively affect lipid weight management, vascular function and inflammation.

Why Apples Are Special for Prebiotics

You can eat apples for prebiotics. One medium Granny Smith apple with skin (one of my favorites) provides almost 5 g of fiber (1/6 of total recommended daily fiber intake) and 16 g of sugar. Generally speaking, sweeter-tasting apples contain more sugar and less fiber. For instance, an average gala apple with skin contains 4 g of fiber and nearly 18 g of sugar, and a medium red delicious with skin contains almost 5 g of fiber with over 22 g of sugar. The sugars are mostly in the form of fructose and sucrose in apples, but glucose, xylose, and a sugar alcohol, sorbitol, are also present.

Interestingly, the amount of sugar in an apple is not the single most important factor in the perception of sweetness of the apple. Nor are juiciness, color or odor. Instead, predictive analysis based on trained sensory panelists' evaluations showed that sorbitol and soluble solid content (including sugars, organic and amino acids, and pectin) are the most important contributors to sweet perception followed by several volatile compounds.

It is known that smell influences taste, so smelling the odor from the volatile compounds from the apple influences your perception of its taste. As a side note, this brings up the subject of mindful eating, which is to slow down, chew your food, and marvel at the color, texture, and smell to fully appreciate the apple.

Raw medium apples, such as Granny Smith, Gala, Fuji, and Red Delicious are also rich sources of the minerals potassium (186-220 mg), magnesium (8-11 mg), and even calcium (8-13 mg). Apples are also great sources of antioxidants and polyphenols.

Most of the fiber in an apple is insoluble, but there is also soluble fiber, particularly in the form of pectin. The polyphenols and pectin are where apples for prebiotics shine. Pectin is a complex polysaccharide in the cell walls of many plants, and is the source of manufactured pectic oligosaccharides sold in some prebiotic products.

You may recall that soluble fibers like pectin lower cholesterol and slow glucose absorption for blood sugar management. Commonly suggested methods of how that occurs are that soluble fiber binds to cholesterol and bile acids as a bulking agent to carry them out of the body, and traps carbohydrates like glucose to slow their absorption. Those methods may be true, but there is another mechanism at work with pectin.

In an old study, a dose of 31 g of pectin added to controlled diets for 3 weeks in healthy volunteers showed that serum cholesterol dropped by 13% on pectin without an increase in stool weight. The conclusion was that it was NOT bulking of the stool by pectin that decreased cholesterol, but researchers at the time did not hypothesize further. In the 1970's when the study was performed, microbiome analysis was not widespread.

More recent studies show that the apple's soluble fiber of pectin, along with the polyphenols in the peel and the pulp, promote health by favoring increases in beneficial short-chain fatty acid butyrate-producing bacteria. This is the effect of apples for prebiotics. This would account for positive health effects without stool bulking.
Since butyrate at the site of production in the intestines nourishes the mucosal lining of the intestines, dampens inflammation, and improves gut barrier function, among other functions, eating one apple a day to support butyrate production is an easy way to support your gut and overall health.

Pectin is also able to bind to toxic, heavy metal ions such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury in the gastrointestinal tract to reduce their absorption and bioaccumulation and aid in their elimination from the body.

The Best Way to Consume Apples for Prebiotics

To get the most from apples for prebiotics, vitamins, and polyphenols, eat apples raw. Apples are easy to transport in a lunch or snack, and will be fine during that time without refrigeration. Otherwise, store them in the refrigerator away from soft fruits and vegetables.

Take your pick of apple. There are over 2,500 varieties of apples grown in the US alone, with 100 of them being commercial varieties. There are 75,000 varieties of apples grown worldwide! It is best to choose organic apples, as apples are number 4 on the Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen list of top pesticide residues in produce. Also, some apples, like the non-browning Artic Apples, are genetically-engineered, AKA GMO.

Skip drinking apple juice, as it is mostly straight sugar and can raise, not lower cholesterol, and contribute to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). LDL-cholesterol concentrations increased by 6.9% with clear juice compared to whole apples and pomace in a dietary crossover study involving 23 healthy adults. Apple juice can also be a source of arsenic, cadmium, and/or lead according to Consumer Reports.

And remember to eat the skin for the biggest benefits of eating apples for prebiotics! Apple peels are the main source of pectin and polyphenols. Several in vitro and animal in vivo studies have shown the value of apple peels and their polyphenols in antiproliferative activity against cancers such as liver and gastric cancers, and the role of pectin in blocking proliferation, migration, and adhesion of cancer cells while inducing apoptosis (programmed cell death) in cancer cells. Additionally, in a retrospective study, consumption of at least one apple a day was reported to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.

An apple a day may just end up being what the doctor orders!

Products with Apple Pectin

Sometimes we don't eat as nutritiously as we should, and that's where supplements can be helpful. If you are trying to increase your butyrate producers with pectin, eat an organic apple if you can and/or try one of these:

  • NOW Foods has apple pectin capsules, with 2 capsules providing 1 g of fiber.
  • DFH has flavored or unflavored PaleoFiber containing 4 g total fiber and 3 g of soluble fiber from various sources including apple pectin. Unflavored PaleoFiber is one of my favorites, particularly since it can be mixed into a protein shake in a shaker bottle when I am visiting friends and family. No blender required.

Check out the above supplements in my online dispensary.

References:

  • E. Aprea et al. "Sweet taste in apple: the role of sorbitol, individual sugars, organic acids and volatile compounds," Scientific Reports 7(2017): 44950.
  • DJ Jenkins et al. "Hypocholesterolemic action of dietary fiber unrelated to fecal bulking effect," Am J Clin Nutr 32.12 (1979): 2430-35.
  • A. Koutsos et al. "Apples and cardiovascular health--is the gut microbiota a core consideration?" Nutrients 7.6 (2015):3959-98.
  • G Ravn-Haren et al. "Intake of whole apples or clear apple juice has contrasting effects on plasma lipids in healthy volunteers," Eur J Nutr 52.8 (2013): 1875-89.
  • SH Tu et al. "An apple a day to prevent cancer formation: Reducing cancer risk with flavonoids," J Food Drug Anal 25.1 (2017): 119-124.
  • USDA Nutrient Database

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