Great Expectations: The Rise - and Fall - of the (Once) Red Delicious Apple

Red Delicious Apples

Story at-a-glance -

  • An Iowan farmer discovered a hardy, cross-bred apple species in his orchard, which eventually went on to the 1914 State Fair as the Red Delicious
  • Red Delicious apples, with their red and yellow streaks and crisp, juicy flavor, were America’s favorite for nearly 75 years
  • The discovery of single-branch mutations from the Red Delicious kicked off sweeping cross-breeding endeavors to make this apple as visually attractive as possible, but with unappealing results in the marketplace
  • Thanks to large-scale selective breeding, the apple that was once a mainstay of the American pantry became not just unpopular but inedible

By Dr. Mercola

If you’re like most people, when looking for apples among the plethora of offerings at your local supermarket, perhaps you choose the most visually appealing.

You may have noticed that in comparison with varieties that may be smaller, slightly mottled or have a brown spot or two, the Red Delicious easily wins the blue ribbon for best looking.

Your first bite, however, might remind you that apples are one more thing you can’t judge by first appearances. The gorgeous apple that for 70 years was everybody’s first choice for lunchboxes and teachers’ desks has literally fallen by the wayside.

While they look fantastic in a fruit basket, Red Delicious apples are usually the last ones to be eaten, if eaten at all. For quite a while, most kids didn’t even know what an apple was supposed to taste like.

“What happened?” you might ask.

It was America’s captivation with flawless perfection that drove ambitious horticulturists of the early 20th century to relentlessly, collectively and literally breed this popular apple variety out of existence. It’s a story with a lesson for us all.

Where the Red Delicious Sprouted

Jesse Hiatt planted apple seedlings in two rows on his Iowa farm in the late 1870s. This particular time, a mutation formed, which he chopped down — two years in a row. The third year, he decided to let it grow. He nurtured the tree for a decade before the first apple was produced.

A savvy apple guy, Hiatt had already developed varieties that he’d named the Hiatt Sweet and the Hiatt Black. He liked the new, mutant apple’s red and yellow streaks as well as its crisp, juicy flavor. He dubbed it the Hawkeye.

Hiatt spent the next decade promoting his tasty creation, the “best tasting apple in the whole world.” This proved true when the Hawkeye won a nation-wide taste test sponsored by a nursery in Louisiana, which later purchased rights to the strain.

The apple’s new title-holder, Clarence Stark, aggressively touted it as the “Delicious,” a morph, he said, between the Bellflower and Winesap species. It was christened the Red Delicious only after Stark’s Yellow Delicious was marketed in 1914.

After he spent a quarter-million dollars advancing his apple as far as the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Stark arranged train shipments of Red Delicious trees to orchards cropping up throughout the fertile Columbia River Valley.

But unfortunately, the shiny new prospects of the Red Delicious were destined for multiple breeding “improvements” that had unintended consequences.

The Truth of ‘An Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away’

Needless to say, apples are one of the most celebrated among fruits and vegetables, and for good reason. As far back as the Garden of Eden, they’ve been considered the quintessential “perfect food.”

Science backs this up strongly since they contain an impressive concentration of antioxidants, particularly in the peel.

In fact, apples contain nutrients for advantages distributed throughout your entire body, from regulating blood sugar to metabolizing bacteria in your digestive system to fighting cancer.1

One benefit is of great interest to asthma sufferers. One study found that apples decrease more symptoms than any fruit and vegetable combination because of their off-the-charts anti-inflammatory capabilities.

Research also shows a connection between apple consumption and a reduced risk of colorectal cancer due to the many flavonoids releasing antioxidant activity. Interestingly, no other fruit has such an ability to alter colorectal cancer risks. The more you eat, the more antioxidant impact you receive.

These compounds have proven beneficial against colon and breast cancers, as well. One study reported that apple consumption may prevent colon cancer growth and impede colon cancer progression due to the apple oligosaccharides.2

Apples contain flavonols such as quercetin, kaempferol and myricetin, which impart the most dramatic health attributes according to scientific studies of this fruit. They’re the most powerful in the peel and the flesh nearest the peel, while anthocyanins provide the red hue.

Together with a host of other phytonutrients, flavonols boost your cardiovascular system and help prevent the formation of fat oxidation and artery-clogging atherosclerosis.3 In regard to regulating blood sugar levels, polyphenols in apples may play several important roles, such as:

  • Ridding your bloodstream of excessive sugar and stimulating your pancreas to produce more insulin
  • Inhibiting alpha-amylase and alpha-glucosidase enzymes, preventing carbohydrates from immediately breaking down into simple sugars
  • Reducing glucose absorption in your digestive tract, which lowers the impact of sugar in your bloodstream
  • Stimulating your insulin receptors to absorb more insulin and push sugar from your bloodstream to your cells, effectively regulating your blood sugar levels

Live Science also reports:

“All of these benefits mean that apples may mitigate the effects of asthma and Alzheimer's disease, while assisting with weight management, bone health, pulmonary function and gastrointestinal protection.4

Whatever variety you buy, however, please note that apples are one of the most pesticide-contaminated foods in the produce section, so buy organic whenever possible.

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The ‘Marvel Apple of the Age’ Gets One Too Many Facelifts

In 1923, an apple grower in New Jersey wrote the Stark family to report a strange phenomenon:

“One limb of a tree he had purchased from the nursery was producing crimson apples while those on the other limbs remained green. A chance genetic mutation that made the apples redden earlier had also given them a deeper, more uniform color, and customers were lining up for a taste.”

One of Clarence Stark’s sons high-tailed it from Missouri to purchase that mutant limb for an impressive six grand, news of which spread quickly.

The Gettysburg Times announced that 500 growers and gardeners from 30 states showed up at the orchard to chew on the possible implications of the “freak bud” sensation.

The “single-branch mutations,” known as “sports,” produced apples that often tasted the same but looked oddly different than the rest. Even odder, they ripened at random times compared to those of the main tree.

It didn’t take long for a grand idea to take root. Growers began grafting branches to exhibit desirable traits onto new rootstock for an unending series of new strains.

How Do You Like Them Apples?

Before too long, industrial horticulturalists began breeding programs for the Red Delicious, driven by factors that made large-scale production easier and more profitable for growers, such as long-term storage, early yields and what-not. A Life of Apples wrote:

“This has allowed growers and breeders to choose mutations that may be redder or more ‘perfectly’ shaped, constantly moving the Red Delicious closer to an ever-changing ideal of a perfect apple, and further from what Jesse Hiatt first bit into on an October day in 1872.”5

In the process of pursuing beauty over brains, so to speak, the Red Delicious found itself with shiny red skin covering bruises and a mealy texture. The blog went on to explain the fate of the beautiful poser:

“Perhaps more than any other apple variety, the Red Delicious has been subject to the aesthetic whims of those who consume it. A preoccupation with the ‘perfect fruit’ has created what some would consider a monstrous apple, turning the Red Delicious into the poster child for the cosmetic apple industry.

The apple found today in school lunches and big box supermarkets has been scrupulously shaped, colored and remolded into an object that is much more the product of human desire than any single force of nature or genetics.”6

Selective Breeding: What Happens When ‘Looks’ Edge Out Substance

The upshot is that the apple from the original tree is today a far cry from the “delicious” fruit it was when Hiatt took it to the world’s fair. We now have around 40 strains claiming to be Red Delicious, which The Atlantic bemoaned:

“As genes for beauty were favored over those for taste, the skins grew tough and bitter around mushy, sugar-soaked flesh.”7

Selective breeding, in which specific plants (or animals) are chosen to produce offspring because they have a particularly valued trait, turned out an apple that was no longer what it advertised. (Selective breeding shouldn’t be confused with genetic engineering, in which foreign genetic material [DNA] is added to the organism). What was once a mainstay of the American pantry became not just unpopular, but inedible.

Because consumers had limited choices in the marketplace, they kept buying — for a while — but after one bite, these nasty apple-wannabes became what one expert termed “the largest compost-maker in the country.” Parents in the habit of buying Red Delicious apples for their kids’ school lunches never knew how many ended up in the trash. Published in 2000, a New York Times article explained:

“In creating an apple that packs well, looks terrific, shines to a glossy polish and can live year-round in cold storage, the growers have produced something many of them no longer recognize.”8

Between 1997 and 2000, the government reported a $760-million loss to 9,000 apple growers. A federal bailout package amounting to $30,000 was approved for people in the apple-growing business for at least two years, regardless of loss — a total of $138 million — but around 20 percent of them went under anyway.

As American as Apple Pie: Fuji and Gala Step Into the Spotlight

In the absence of truly tasty apple varieties, American apple growers began developing new apple varieties for overseas markets. The Fuji emerged in the 1930s in Japan as a mix between the Red Delicious and Virginia Ralls Janet varieties, and New Zealand’s Gala, a cross of the Golden Delicious and Britain’s Kidd’s Orange Red, also emerged. It didn’t take long for them to become a hit in the American market. They tasted good!

Inevitably, Red Delicious production declined by 40 percent, resulting in an $800-million loss for American apple growers. It also left a huge surplus. It had farmers scratching their heads, since the goal when refining new strains was for their apples to look good on a grocery store shelf for weeks at a time or even after a year in cold storage; it had seemed financially expedient.

Nowadays, the Gala is creeping into America’s top spot along with varieties like Granny Smith, Golden Delicious and Fuji, while sales of the Red Delicious, while still maintaining, is transferring to foreign markets. Those who know their apples say the key to successfully marketing the Red Delicious is to ship them to areas of the world where the populace doesn’t realize what a genuinely delicious apple is supposed to taste like.

What this may mean, though, is that if the absence of the Red Delicious becomes an actual void, Americans may try other varieties — particularly organic varieties — and discover for themselves that one bad apple may lead to one that’s better.