There may be some truth to the old saying, "an apple a day keeps the doctor away," after all.
A new study suggests that eating apples on a regular basis can help reduce bad cholesterol, increase good cholesterol and even aid weight loss.
"This is a pleasant surprise," said the senior author of the paper, Bahram Arjmandi of Florida State University in Tallahassee.
At the outset of the study, the researchers recruited 160 women between the ages of 45 to 65. The volunteers were divided into two groups.
One group snacked on 75 grams of dried apples slices every day for a year. (The fruit was dried to ensure everyone received a standardized amount.) The other group consumed 100 grams of prunes. The food given to both groups amounted to 240 calories a day.
The original purpose of the study was to determine the effects of eating prunes on bone density. Apples were used simply for comparison purposes. But when the data started rolling in, the researchers realized apples were also worthy of their attention.
Within six months, the women munching on apples experienced an average drop of 23 per cent in LDL, commonly known as "bad" cholesterol, which can contribute to heart disease. At the same time, HDL, or "good" cholesterol, which helps remove fatty deposits from blood vessels, rose by 4 per cent.
Prunes also altered cholesterol levels but the changes were not large enough to be considered statistically significant.
Previous animal research had already indicated that certain apple compounds - such as pectin and polyphenols - bestow cardiovascular benefits. The study by Dr. Arjmandi's team, however, is considered to be the first to explore the long-term benefits of apples on human health.
"I never expected apple consumption to reduce bad cholesterol to this extent," said Dr. Arjmandi. He knows of no other food that can lower LDL by such a large amount.
Better still, the 240 additional calories per day in dried apple slices did not lead to weight gain. In fact, the women lost an average of 3.3 pounds or 1.49 kilograms.
Dr. Arjmandi speculated that apple pectin - a soluble fibre which has a gel-forming effect when mixed with water - was partly responsible for the reduction in weight. Pectin contributes to a feeling of being full and may dampen appetite.
The findings from the study - funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture - were presented this week at the Experimental Biology annual meeting in Washington.
The study's dramatic results still need to be confirmed by follow-up research. In the meantime, there's no harm in eating a fresh apple or two a day - which would be equivalent to the amount of dried fruit used in the trial. It may just help in a big way.