By Dr. Mercola
Apples genetically engineered to resist browning when sliced or bruised are on their way to about 400 grocery stores in the U.S. Midwest. Developed by Okanagan Specialty Fruits, the apples are engineered to suppress the production of the enzyme — polyphenol oxidase (PPO) — that causes browning. The first two varieties of the so-named Arctic Apple — Arctic Golden and Arctic Granny — were deregulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2015. A third variety, Arctic Fuji, joined the mix in 2016.1
Their arrival in stores is noteworthy for a number of reasons, the first being that this is the first Genetically modified organism (GMO) designed to have a perceived benefit for consumers. While people have been consuming genetically engineered (GE) foods for some time — often without knowing, since labels aren’t required — the GE products were designed to appeal to farmers.
For instance, Monsanto recently released Roundup Ready Xtend cotton and soybean seeds, designed to tolerate both Roundup and dicamba herbicides. Consumers wouldn’t go seeking out this type of soybean, but rather consume it by default, because it’s planted by farmers. This is changing with the release of GE Arctic Apples, which could prompt people to seek out the nonbrowning apples by name.
Arctic Apples to Serve as a Bellwether for Consumer-Geared GE Foods
Many companies dabbling in GMOs have their eyes on Arctic Apples, waiting to see if consumers accept or reject them. “If the apple sells, it will pave the way for others,” Yinong Yang, a plant pathologist at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, told Nature. He is among those keeping watch on the new apples, as he created a GE mushroom that resists browning, using CRISPR technology.2
Others waiting in the wings include Finless Foods, which is working on creating Bluefin-tuna fillets made from fish stem cells, and the creators of meatless burgers made from GE yeast. As for Okanagan’s GE apples, “The purpose of Arctic apples is definitely to promote healthy eating, boost apple consumption and reduce food waste, no matter what your age, income or any other factor,” the company’s president, Neal Carter, told Bloomberg.3
He stated that, in testing that occurred in 2017, 90 percent of consumers who tried them said they’d buy them if they were available, and the company cites statistics that 40 percent of apples are wasted, often due to browning.4 How valuable a nonbrowning apple proves to be to consumers remains to be seen, however. The first GE apples will be sold sliced, in 10-ounce bags — and they won’t be labeled as GMOs.
As of November 2017, there are about 280 acres of GE apple trees growing in Washington state. The company is hoping to increase this to more than 1,000 acres by 2020 and expanding to other countries and products.5 Despite the fact that this is one of the only whole-product GMOs on the market (as opposed to products sold that contain GE ingredients), there will only be a QR code on the package, which consumers can scan with a cellphone for more information.
As Bill Freese, science-policy analyst at the advocacy group Center for Food Safety, who is calling for the apples to be clearly labeled as GMOs, told nature, “Not everyone has a smartphone, and even if you have one, are you going to check every item with it?”6
Will Sliced Apples Increase Contamination Risks, Packaging Waste?
A nonbrowning apple may hold a certain allure for those looking for a ready supply of fresh-looking apple slices, but there are some variables that don’t appear to be particularly well thought out. Contamination risks certainly come to mind. The more you process a food — pre-peeling and slicing it, for instance — the more the risk of contamination increases.
The apples will be passed down the equipment line to be sliced and diced, losing any natural protection they would have from the skin and being exposed to any contaminants that may linger on the machinery. When consuming a whole apple, you bypass these extra sources of potential contamination. Plus, the peel can be washed, removing contaminants the whole apple may have come across, to some extent.
There’s talk of the GE apple slices being sold in vending machines and the like, which, on its surface, sounds like a great way to get kids to snack on apples instead of candy. But a whole non-GMO apple is already a perfectly portable snack. Packaging sliced apples into individual servings only serves to create more packaging waste.
Further, it takes only a minute to slice up an apple yourself and pop it into a reusable container to eat later — is the new product really that much more convenient? Not to mention, Carter noted, the GE Arctic Apples are expected to “fetch a premium in pricing,” according to Bloomberg, which also spoke to Jim McFerson, professor of horticulture at Washington State University in Pullman, who called the GE apples a “risky wager.”
“Because apples are seen as a quintessentially healthy product that parents provide for children, it’s a sensitive market,” he said.7 It’s true, too, that there could be unintended consequences. Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said of the GE apples:8
"Many big apple buyers don't want this. Consumers don't want this. It's not only an unnecessary product, but the risks have not been fully examined … Regulators have glossed over the possible unintentional effects of this technology, including the potential economic impacts on farmers, the potential of contamination for non-GMO and organic apple crops and the potential impact of the non-browning gene silencing, which could also weaken plant defenses and plant health."
Why Do Apples Turn Brown? And Is It Such a Bad Thing?
The worth of the GE Arctic Apple is hanging on the notion that a browned apple is a bad apple. But is this really the case? Cutting an apple exposes the cells to oxygen, which allows the PPO enzymes to rapidly oxidize the phenolic compounds in the apple tissues into ortho-quinones (o-quinones).
O-quinones form a natural antiseptic that helps protect the apple from bacteria and fungi. While o-quinones have no color, they react with oxygen and amino acids to produce melanin, which turns the apple brown. Put another way by a study published in the journal HortScience:9
“The enzymatic browning is a consequence of the oxidation of polyphenols to their corresponding quinones by PPO. These quinones are then polymerized with other quinones or phenolics, originating brown pigments.”
Apples with higher levels of phenolic compounds are best for your health but also tend to brown faster than apples with lower levels. One study suggested that among the apple varieties studied, Fuji is the best for fresh consumption because of its higher phenolic content at harvest time. However, they suggested a variety known as “Aori27” is best for processing, as it had the lowest PPO activity and the lowest polyphenol content, and therefore the lowest potential for enzymatic browning.10
That being said, from a health standpoint, you’re better off choosing polyphenol-rich apples for your health and not worrying about it if they turn a little brown — they’re still safe to eat. If the brown color is too off-putting, you should know that there are simple methods to stave off browning (if you’re not planning to eat the whole apple at once, that is), none of which require resorting to a GMO. Among them:
- Put cut apples in the refrigerator. This will slow down the chemical reactions and oxidation process that leads to browning.
- Spray exposed areas of cut apples with pineapple juice or lemon juice, which will slow enzymatic browning.
- Immerse cut apples in pure water, which will keep oxygen from reaching the surface without affecting flavor. You can even add a dissolved vitamin C tablet to the water; the antioxidants will further stave off browning.11
- Blanch apples in boiling water for four to five minutes (this should only be used for apples you plan on cooking, as it will affect the texture).
How to Seek Out the Healthiest Apples
There’s no doubt than an apple makes a near-perfect snack, even if it turns a little brown sometimes — all the more incentive to eat it right away. As mentioned, the browning serves a purpose, helping to protect the apple from bacteria, and the apples with the most beneficial phenolic compounds are those that brown the fastest. That’s just a little food for thought if you’re contemplating whether you should take the chance on GE apples just so they stay white.
As for why apples are so good for you, compared to other commonly consumed fruits, they ranked highest for the proportion of free phenolic compounds, which means they are not bound to other compounds in the fruit and therefore may be more easily absorbed into your bloodstream.12 Apple peels contain most of the healthiest components, including antioxidants like catechin, procyanidins, chlorogenic acid, phlorizin and more.
Eating apples is associated with a lower risk of death from heart disease, an association that may be related to their content of antioxidant flavonoids,15 and they’re known to help regulate blood sugar.16 Like many whole foods, apples contain compounds that are antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-mutagenic, which means they may also help fight cancer. According to the journal Planta Medica:17
“Apple products have been shown to prevent skin, mammary and colon carcinogenesis in animal models. Epidemiological observations indicate that regular consumption of one or more apples a day may reduce the risk for lung and colon cancer.”
Look for apples with shiny skin, which tend to be crisper than dull apples, and refrigerate them at 32 degrees F to keep them nice and crisp.18 It’s important to seek out organic apples, however, as they’re ranked No. 4 on the Environmental Working Group’s list of most pesticide-contaminated produce.19 Seeking organic apples will also ensure that they’re not GE.
If you’re purchasing conventionally grown apples, for now it’s only the sliced Arctic Apples that are GMO, so to avoid them, choose whole apples instead. Finally, no matter what type of apple you buy, keep in mind that they are a relatively high-fructose fruit, with 9.5 grams in a medium-sized apple. They should, therefore, be consumed in moderation.