Introduction

In April 2000 Mark Christensen and friends discovered a unique seedling apple tree in a remote part of central North Island New Zealand. Mark and friends were on a road trip and came across an apple tree with apples that were big, clearly disease resistant, crisp and had a wonderful flavour.  These characteristics were amazing considering the obvious age of the tree which had the biggest girth of any apple tree they had seen. It was obviously very old. The chance occurrence that had led us to this tree was to lead us on a journey. A journey that meant we were to look at the tree from a scientific direction, for assisting in preventing cancer, and from the sociological point of view to look at growing communities of heritage fruit tree enthusiasts. The impetus for this research also came from seeing so many people affected by cancer and noticing how modern treatments can be so difficult and ineffective. It was going back to the old way of looking at food as medicine and embracing the ability of plants to keep us healthy.

Join Mark Christensen as he introduces us to this heritage variety of apple that is fast becoming a favourite around the country. Filmed as part of the Localising Food Project.

Murray Jones from TreeLife Organic Nursery in Whanganui demonstrates how to prune the Monty’s Surprise apple tree. Narrated by David Hughes and filmed by Phil Thomsen.

Montys Surprise Research Journey

The skin of Monty’s Surprise apples contains the highest levels of total quercetin flavonoid compounds found in the world, and the second-highest levels of total procyanidin compounds. It is the oligomeric procyanidins (proanthocyanidins) in Monty’s Surprise that appear to be the effective compounds at inhibiting cancer cell proliferation, demonstrated through in vitro testing.  We know that plant compounds do not work in isolation, they exhibit medicinal effects through a synergistic interrelationship with other compounds in the plant. We therefore believe that the particular effectiveness of Monty’s Surprise comes from the combination and amounts of compounds that exist in this unique apple variety.

The research suggests that the Monty’s Surprise apple variety contains a combination of phytonutrients that can work with the body’s immune system to prevent cancer cells in the body from becoming activated and initiating a disease process.  This has exciting potential for the prevention of cancer.  Human beings are complex individuals, living diverse lifestyles, and one approach cannot be guaranteed to work for everyone.  However, the potential for this variety to assist many people means that the Trust is committed to continue researching its effectiveness and ensuring that the variety is distributed as widely as possible.

It is important to have an understanding of the disease that you wish to prevent or treat. Many research sources have concluded that cancer can be an hereditary disease and can also be activated by environmental factors. We believe that if people can be empowered to grow the Monty’s Surprise Apple and consume this  medicinal fruit they can improve their health outcomes.

Research done at Cornell University identified the ability of Red Delicious apples to inhibit cancer cell proliferation. Work had also been done in Finland that identified in a long-term human population trial the reduced incidence of chronic disease, including cancer, in those individuals who ate the most apples. These studies encouraged researchers for the Heritage Food Crops Research Trust in New Zealand to find out how apple varieties growing in New Zealand might compare to apple varieties tested elsewhere in the world for their levels of polyphenolic compounds and ability to prevent cancer.

Mark Christensen (Heritage Food Crops Research Trust), Dr Frances Raul (Ircad, Strasbourg, France), and Dr Tony McGhie (Plant and Food Research)

The services of Dr Tony McGhie at the Plant & Food Research Institute were employed to chemically analyse over 250 apple varieties. Because many of New Zealand’s modern commercial apple cultivars had already been chemically analysed, this study focused principally on heritage varieties. The data readily confirmed that superior levels of beneficial polyphenolic compounds existed in these old heritage cultivars. From the 250 apple cultivars tested, three were selected as having the most likely potential for benefiting human health and reducing the incidence of cancer. These varieties were Monty’s Surprise, a unique and versatile New Zealand seedling variety; Hetlina, an old European eating apple; and Fuero Rous, a traditional European cider apple.

In September 2006, 12 powdered extract samples of Monty’s Surprise, Hetlina and Fuero Rous, apple cider and cider vinegar, were sent to Dr Francis Raul of the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research in Strasbourg. In February 2007 we received communication from Dr Raul that of all the samples he tested, the procyanidins extracted from the Monty’s Surprise cider showed the most potent antiproliferative effects on a human colon cancer-derived metastatic cell line (SW620).

We were absolutely delighted to hear of these results, as they provided evidence for us to focus our research upon this unique New Zealand seedling apple variety. Dr Raul and his team had earlier published their results (in October 2004) on the effectiveness of procyanidin compounds from the skin of a French cider apple on colon cancer cells. He then found that procyanidin compounds in cider made from Monty’s Surprise apples were more effective than his earlier findings, at an in vitro (or cell culture) level.

Procyanidin Compounds
Comparison of Flavonoids
Total Phenolics

In April 2007 we collected sufficient Monty’s Surprise apples to make 70 litres of Monty’s Surprise cider. Once made, this was delivered to Dr Tony McGhie at Plant & Food Research for conversion into powdered extract. This process was completed in October and the resulting 35 grams of powdered extract was sent to Dr Raul. In January 2008 we received communication from Dr Raul that his in vitro testing showed that 0.02 grams per ml of powdered extract had produced an 80% growth inhibition on the colon cancer cells, thus further demonstrating this variety’s significant antiproliferative activity.

In late 2007 Dr Izabela Konczak at Food Science Australia (part of the CSIRO), tested our Monty’s Surprise samples and found those samples with high procyanidin levels (being the cider and apple samples) exhibited inhibition of cancer cell proliferation in a dose dependent manner, against both colon cancer and stomach cancer cell lines. Dr Konczak compared this very favourably with similar effects exhibited by procyanidin-rich grape seed extract.

Since this date, the Heritage Food Crops Research Trust has concentrated on giving away thousands of Monty’s Surprise apple trees throughout the community.

2008 – 2020

The HFCRT wondered if our Monty’s Surprise Apple tree distributions would be embraced by the general public and would they understand the concept of food as medicine and grow the Monty’s Surprise Apple tree for their health? Furthermore would they be able to communicate the vision and use the tree to help set up food forests in their communities? These questions were answered over the following years with the enthusiastic community uptake of 12,000 Monty’s Surprise Apple trees (as at 2020). The vision also started to be community driven with the HFCRT noticing that people would take the trees and thengive them  to families along with the story and information on planting and care.

The Trust started to explore whether seedlings from the original Monty’s Surprise Apple could evolve, to become even more beneficial for human health than the mother tree. Following testing of a number of these seedlings,  selections have been made of ones that show superior levels of polyphenolic and triterpenoid compounds. These continue to be trialled and this research is ongoing as each year new seedlings reach their initial fruiting stage.

We recognise that the most effective method to confirm the effectiveness of consuming Monty’s Surprise apples as a means of preventing cancer will be by completing a long-term human study.  At the beginning of July 2020, we started working with scientists at Massey University and Otago University to initiate this study. Meanwhile the Trust believes that it has sufficient scientific evidence to enable it to say with confidence that the consumption of this particular apple variety will be of benefit to many people for the prevention of cancers.

Brad Christensen helping pick Monty's Surprise apples from the mother tree for research.
Brad Christensen helping pick Monty's Surprise apples from the mother tree for research.

Brad Christensen helping pick Monty’s Surprise apples from the mother tree for research.

Monty’s Surprise apples, cider and apple jelly.

Brad Christensen helping pick Monty's Surprise apples from the mother tree for research.

The original Monty’s Surprise tree.

Monty’s Surprise Apple being prepared for dehydrating

Monty’s Surprise biscotti made by Melinda Hatherly-Jones.

Monty’s Surprise flowers.

Joy Bristol and Sharon Duff with one of the Monty’s Surprise apples about to be pressed for juice, cider or cider vinegar.

Monty’s Surprise flowers floating in spring water as part of the process for making a Monty’s Surprise Bach flower essence.

Monty’s Surprise flowers infused in Monty’s Surprise apple cider vinegar.

Monty’s Surprise flowers infused in Monty’s Surprise apple cider vinegar.

Research Background

Members of the Fraternités Ouvrières in France holding Monty’s Surprise grafting wood.

Members of the Fraternités Ouvrières in France holding Monty’s Surprise grafting wood.

Community Partnerships

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[1][2][3][4] 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[5].

One of the studies referred to was conducted by the National Public Health Institute in Helsinki, Finland[6]. 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[7], 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.

Comparison of Levels of Health-Promoting Compounds

Total Flavonoids

Apple flavonoids are found almost entirely in the skin and are composed of glycosides of quercetin. Quercetin glycosides are powerful antioxidants but have other biological properties such as anti-cancer activity that may be beneficial. In several populations apple is the major source of quercetin after onion. Apple is a good dietary source of quercetin.

Skin (ug/cm2) Flesh (ug/g FW)
Monty’s Surprise 398.8 20.9
Red Delicious 108.9 4.5
Pacific Rose 111.2 4.1

Procyanidins

Although there is little evidence that procyanidins are absorbed into the body there is direct evidence to support their use for enhancing health. Procyanidins are effective antioxidants and have other activities such as inhibition of platelet activity. Several successful antioxidant products are based on procyanidins including grape seed extract and pine bark extract (Enzogenol and Pycnogenol). Some other fruits also contain substantial procyanidin concentrations such as grape, and persimmon. Additionally, the health properties of cocoa (and chocolate) are promoted due to the high procyanidin content.

Skin (ug/cm2) Flesh (ug/g FW)
Monty’s Surprise 722.0 1426.5
Red Delicious 452.5 546.7
Pacific Rose 233.7 323.5

Effectiveness of Monty’s Surprise (procyanidins) at inhibiting colon cancer cell proliferation

The following chart was a communication from Dr Francis Raul. It shows that after nine days in a cell culture, the Monty’s Surprise cider extract of concentrated procyanidins (D185-3) performed better at all levels of concentration tested, at inhibiting the colon cancer cell proliferation, than the positive control.

Effect of apple extracts on the growth of
human colon cancer-derived metastatic cells (SW620)

7 days of treatment IC50 # 40μg/ml
The IC50 is the measurement of the concentration needed to kill half the cancer cells. The lower the number, the better (meaning that more cells are killed at a lower concentration).
Note: this interactive graph has been generated based on the original bitmap image. Data points are estimates.

Our Vision

Plant & Food Research in their own research have concluded that “to maximise intake of apple polyphenols it is necessary to consume apples of cultivars with high polyphenolic concentration…”.[8]

This suggests that if people in New Zealand (and, in time, throughout the world) ate more high health apples such as Monty’s Surprise this would, over time, have the effect of lowering the overall incidence of chronic disease within our communities.

This is a wellbeing concept. We want to keep people healthy so that along with an increased enjoyment of life, less pressure will be placed on our existing health services.

In medieval times there was a saying ‘Ate an apfel avore gwain to bed makes the doctor beg his bread’, which we now know as ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’. We have begun, firstly with the identification of Monty’s Surprise as a high health variety, and secondly with the distribution of these apple trees throughout the Whanganui region and further afield, a model that we hope will turn this ancient saying into a reality, once more.

Mark Christensen
Research Director
Heritage Food Crops Research Trust

References

  1. Willett, W.C. Diet, nutrition, and avoidable cancer. Environ. Health Perspect. 1995, 103, 165-170.
  2. Eberhardt, M.V.; Lee, C.Y.; Liu, R.H. Antioxidant activity of fresh apples. Nature 2000, 405, 903-904.
  3. Le-Marchand, L.; Murphy, S.P.; Hankin, J.H,; Wilkens, L.R.; Kolonel, L.N. Intake of flavonoids and lung cancer. J. Natl. Cancer Inst. 2000, 92, 154-160.
  4. Xing, N.; Chen, Y.; Mitchell, S.H.; Young, C.Y.F. Quercetin inhibits the expression and function of the androgen receptor in LNCaP prostate cancer cells. Carcinogenesis 2001, 22, 409-414.
  5. Boyer, J.; Liu, R.H. Apple phytochemicals and their health benefits. Nutritional Journal 2004.
  6. Knekt, P.; Jarvinen, R.; Reunanen, A.; Maatela, J. Flavonoid intake and coronary mortality in Finland: a cohort study. Br. Med. J. 1996, 312, 478-81.
  7. Liu, R.H.; Liu, J.; Chen, B. Apples prevent mammary tumors in rats. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 2005.
  8. McGhie, T.K.; Hunt, M.; Barnett, L.E. Cultivar and growing region determine the antioxidant polyphenolic concentration and composition of apples grown in New Zealand.

Associated Research Papers

  1. Willett, W.C. Diet, nutrition, and avoidable cancer. Environ. Health Perspect. 1995, 103, 165-170.
  2. Eberhardt, M.V.; Lee, C.Y.; Liu, R.H. Antioxidant activity of fresh apples. Nature 2000, 405, 903-904.
  3. Le-Marchand, L.; Murphy, S.P.; Hankin, J.H,; Wilkens, L.R.; Kolonel, L.N. Intake of flavonoids and lung cancer. J. Natl. Cancer Inst. 2000, 92, 154-160.
  4. Xing, N.; Chen, Y.; Mitchell, S.H.; Young, C.Y.F. Quercetin inhibits the expression and function of the androgen receptor in LNCaP prostate cancer cells. Carcinogenesis 2001, 22, 409-414.
  5. Boyer, J.; Liu, R.H. Apple phytochemicals and their health benefits. Nutritional Journal 2004.
  6. Knekt, P.; Jarvinen, R.; Reunanen, A.; Maatela, J. Flavonoid intake and coronary mortality in Finland: a cohort study. Br. Med. J. 1996, 312, 478-81.
  7. Liu, R.H.; Liu, J.; Chen, B. Apples prevent mammary tumors in rats. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 2005.
  8. McGhie, T.K.; Hunt, M.; Barnett, L.E. Cultivar and growing region determine the antioxidant polyphenolic concentration and composition of apples grown in New Zealand.
Apples Prevent Mammary Tumours in Rats

This study demonstrated that whole apple extracts effectively inhibited mammary cancer growth in the rat model; thus, consumption of apples may be an effective strategy for cancer protection.

Inbreeding of Modern Apple Cultivars

Founding Clones, Inbreeding, Coancestry, and Status Number of Modern Apple Cultivars
The Horticulture and Food Research Institute of New Zealand Ltd, Havelock North Research Center

MONTY’S SURPRISE PHOTOS