This article appeared in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News in October 2018.
Apples are the quintessential fruit of the fall season. Luckily, we live in the most productive apple growing region of the country. Each year, approximately 2.5 million tons of apples are harvested in Washington. That’s 58% of all apples produced in the United States! Although Idaho may be famous for its potatoes, apples are produced in the southwestern area of the state.
Apples are generally harvested between August and November, so now is the perfect time to think about ways to incorporate this healthy and tasty fruit into your diet. Whether selecting apples from a U-pick, the grocery store, or your own tree, choose apples that are bruise-free, and firm to the touch for the best flavor and crunch. Inspect apples to make sure they are free of contaminants such as soil or bird feces, which can carry illness-causing microorganisms. Never eat apples that have dropped to the ground, as these can easily become contaminated with harmful bacteria. Although apples can be stored at room temperature, they can become soft or begin to spoil quickly. It is best to store apples in the refrigerator. This will prolong their shelf life and help retain quality for several months.
Apples should be washed well before cutting into them, consuming them, or using them in a recipe. Research performed by Dr. Girish Ganjyal and Ewa Pietrysiak, in the School of Food Science at Washington State University, found that a foodborne illness-causing microorganism, called Listeria monocytogenes (Lm), is most prevalent in the stem bowl and base of the apple. Apples also produce a waxy layer, which often contains small cracks that can provide another cozy niche for Lm to grow. Lm is naturally present in the environment, and these structures on the apple make it difficult to remove the microorganisms, even during washing. When washing apples, you will want to pay particular attention to the stem bowl and base. Since apples have a firm skin, you can gently scrub the skin under cold water using a vegetable brush.
Candy coated apples, such as caramel apples, are a popular treat during Halloween. However, in 2015, three popular brands of caramel apples were recalled due to a multi-state foodborne illness outbreak caused by contamination of the apples with Lm. This outbreak resulted in seven deaths. Lm has a relatively high mortality rate, especially in individuals who are pregnant, aged 65 years or older, children ages 5 and under, or those with weakened immune systems. It is believed that the puncturing of a stick into the apple through the stem bowl, allows for Lm to not only enter the interior of the apple, but also allows nutrients and moisture to escape to the surface of the apple, thus providing a perfect environment for the growth of Lm. The sugary coating also provides nutrients for the growth of Lm. It is still safe to enjoy these delicious treats, just be sure to keep them refrigerated at 40° F or less, regardless if they are prepared fresh at home or store bought.
Apple cider is another tasty seasonal treat. However, apple cider has been implicated in foodborne illness outbreaks due to contamination with the organisms Salmonella and E. coli. To ensure your cider is safe, you should only drink cider that has undergone a pasteurization step to kill harmful microorganisms. If you purchase unpasteurized cider, you can pasteurize it at home by heating the cider to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit. After heating, pour the juice into a clean container and refrigerate.
In addition to enjoying apples in their fresh, candied, or cider forms, apples can be baked to create a variety of dishes, or canned for year-round enjoyment. If you wish to can apples, whether as an apple butter, pie-filling, or sliced, your local extension office has resources to help you can these products safely.
Whichever way you choose to enjoy these nutritious treats, there is no better time than now to reap the rewards of the apple harvest season.