The Heritage Food Crops Research Trust has always been embedded within the different communities in the Whanganui region with connections that have also reached out across the world. It has embraced the concept of ‘think global act local’ in the promotion of food as our first medicine and that the best food is food that you and your family have grown. Over the years spiritual leaders, Iwi, community and health organisations, with shared values, have joined the team adding workforce and funding. Together we have distributed Monty’s Surprise apple trees, heirloom tomatoes, beans, Maori potatoes and other heritage fruit trees throughout the community and wider region. The involvement of these organisations have enabled schools, kindergartens, Kohanga Reo, (Maori preschools), community gardens and Pasifika groups within the Whanganui region to receive plants, trees and seeds. Distributions have also gone out through GP’s (general medical practitioners), and have been offered to our hospital staff. We try to assist all those with shared values as well as having distributions to the general public, so that everyone may benefit from the health-giving potential of these special heritage varieties. Our aim with the identification, propagation and distribution of these medicinal plants and apple trees, is to ensure we provide a high level of availability within the region of a food that should, in time, see an improvement in community health and wellbeing.
Recent International Research
Evidence suggests that a diet high in fruits and vegetables may decrease the risk of some serious illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and cancer, and that phytochemicals including phenolics, flavonoids and carotenoids from fruit and vegetables may play a key role in reducing chronic disease risk.
Apples are a widely consumed, rich source of phytochemicals.Epidemiological studies have linked the consumption of apples with reduced risk of some cancers, cardiovascular diseases, asthma and diabetes. In the laboratory, apples have been found to have very strong antioxidant activity, to inhibit cancer cell proliferation, to decrease lipid oxidation and to lower cholesterol. Apples contain a variety of phytochemicals, including quercetin, catechin, phloridzin and chlorogenic acid, all of which are strong antioxidants.
One of the studies referred to was conducted by the National Public Health Institute in Helsinki, Finland. It involved 10,054 Finnish men and women. This cohort epidemiological study on the association between dietary intake of flavonoids and the risk of several chronic diseases reported that of all the main flavonoid sources, apple intake is associated with [a reduced risk of] almost all of the chronic diseases considered.
Overwhelmingly, the Finnish researchers pointed to the flavonoid quercetin, a plant-based phytonutrient found most abundantly in apples, onions, tea and red wine, as the flavonoid with the best potential health-promoting capabilities.
Furthermore, according to analysis of an extensive body of data over many years, those study participants who ate the most apples and the flavonoid quercetin, had the lowest risk of total mortality; that is, they had the lowest risk of dying of any cause during the decades-long study.
For a number of years research has been done at Cornell University using Red Delicious apples grown in New York State to provide the extracts to study the effects of phytochemicals. The researchers compared the anti-cancer and anti-oxidant activity in the apple flesh, and also studied the fruit’s skin.
Using colon cancer cells treated with apple extract, the scientists found that cell proliferation was inhibited. Colon cancer cells treated with 50 milligrams of apple extract (from the skins) were inhibited by 43 percent. The apple flesh extract inhibited the colon cancer cells by 29 percent. The researchers also tested the apple extract against human liver cancer cells. At 50 milligrams the extract derived from the apple with the skin on inhibited those cancer cells by 57 percent. The apple extract derived from the fruit’s fleshy part inhibited cancer cells by 40 percent.
A more recent 2005 Cornell Study, found that breast cancer incidence was reduced by 17, 39 and 44 percent in rats fed the human equivalent of one, three or six apples a day, respectively over 24 weeks.
New Zealand Research
As previously mentioned, these Cornell studies both used Red Delicious apples. In 2003, the Central Districts Branch of the New Zealand Tree Crops Association (whose research is now conducted through the Heritage Food Crops Research Trust) decided to find out how New Zealand apples would rate in comparison to the New York Red Delicious.
In investigating which apple varieties to test they discovered that Plant & Food Research had already tested most New Zealand commercial cultivars, and that they, like Cornell, considered Red Delicious to be one of the top varieties in terms of levels of health-promoting compounds.
The Central Districts Tree Crops Branch therefore decided to concentrate its efforts on an investigation into a large number of previously untested heritage apple varieties (varieties that were no longer in commercial production). Many of these had been identified in its heritage apple recovery programme which involved accessing a number of specialist collections and investigating remnants of old orchards around the country.
In this 2003 study, 59 varieties were tested. The chemical analysis work was conducted by Plant & Food Research so that results could be compared directly with the previous Plant & Food Research data on New Zealand commercial varieties.
We believe that the results have several significant implications for the health of New Zealanders.
- The results showed that every apple variety is different. Every variety has different levels of compounds and the levels between varieties can differ substantially.
- It became apparent that modern apple breeding programmes that have resulted in today’s commercial varieties have never used nutrition as a major criteria in their breeding programmes.
- Modern commercial apple varieties appeared to have less, and in some cases considerably less, beneficial compounds in them than some heritage apple varieties.
- Some heritage apple varieties contain substantial levels of compounds that give them the potential to be far superior varieties for human health.
Two heritage varieties in particular were identified in this study as having the most potential as high health ‘medicinal’ apples. These were Monty’s Surprise and Hetlina.
In 2004 we took the opportunity to send these top two apple varieties to Cornell University for testing against cancer cells. The results indicated their potent anti-proliferative activity against both HepG2 liver cancer cells and Caco-2 colon cancer cells.
In 2005 we had another 126 apple varieties chemically analysed, for the first time including a selection of traditional European cider apples. These unpalatable cider apples tested with substantial levels of compounds in the flesh, making them ideal for juice, cider and cider-vinegar production. One variety, Fuero Rous stood out for it’s medicinal potential.
Initial testing of the flowers of the Monty’s Surprise variety, in a flower essence, established that they contain the same compounds as found in the apple, as well as additional compounds with potential health benefits.
Testing in 2006 to identify and quantify the levels of polyphenolic compounds in apple pips continued to identify the high levels apparent in the Monty’s Surprise variety. This variety tested with a very high level of phloridzin in their pips.
In 2006 powdered extract samples of Monty’s Surprise, Hetlina and Fuero Rous (apple; cider; cider vinegar and pips) were sent to Dr Francis Raul of the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research in Strasbourg for cancer studies. The Institute’s researchers had discovered that another set of compounds, the procyanidins (or proanthocyanidins) – were also effective in killing cancer cells (in a rat model). When they found out about the very high levels of procyanadins in Monty’s Surprise and Fuero Rous, they asked us if they could obtain powdered extracts of these apples for their studies.
The French researchers identified the sample of Monty’s Surprise cider as having the most potent antiproliferative effectiveness against human colon cancer cells, with their in vitro testing.
In 2007, Monty’s Surprise samples were also sent to Dr Izabela Konczak at Food Science Australia. Her in vitro testing against colon and stomach cancer confirmed that the samples of cider and apple that contained high levels of procyanidins did exhibit inhibition of both types of cancer cells in a dose dependent manner.
In 2008, Dr Francis Raul conducted a 12 month in vivo study of our Monty’s Surprise cider powdered extract on rats with colon cancer. This has greatly assisted us to see where Monty’s Surprise is likely to be most effective for the prevention of disease. This variety has very high levels of oligomeric procyanidins which are very active polyphenolic compounds that inhibit cancer cell activity. We now believe that this activity will be most effective in working with the human body’s own immune system to prevent cancerous cells (that are already within the body, through the hereditary nature of cancer) from becoming active and thereby initiating a disease process. We believe that Monty’s Surprise can work very effectively as a natural preventative approach, rather than as a cure once the disease has been diagnosed, at which time there will be a full-blown disease in progress.
The most effective method to establish the effectiveness of consuming Monty’s Surprise apples as a means of preventing cancer will be a long-term human study. We believe that we have sufficient scientific evidence to enable us to say with confidence that the consumption of this particular apple variety will be of benefit to many people for the prevention of chronic disease (and cancer in particular). We will focus our future efforts upon the wider distribution of this wonderful variety, in the hope that as many people as possible may be able to benefit from its very high levels of medicinal compounds.