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Ugly Is Only Skin Deep When It Comes To Apples

One of autumn’s real treats is going apple picking. It has been a tradition in my family for years, and, judging from the crowds and picked-over trees we’ve encountered, it’s a tradition for many other families as well. Like most folks, we usually seek out the good-looking apples. But perhaps we have missed out on something important – the added nutritional value that “ugly apples” provide.

What’s an ugly apple? They are apples that don’t have the glossy sheen that grocery store apples usually feature. A prettiness that results, in large measure, from the use of fungicides and insecticides. Ugly apples, on the other hand, are grown with minimal or no pesticides. And subsequently, these organic apples often bear a flawed appearance, spotted, speckled, blotched, freckled, and scabbed. 

These imperfections, however, don’t mean ugly apples are bad to eat (those would be rotten apples). In fact, many believe they are actually nutritionally richer and better for consumption. Their scars represent the fruit’s triumph in fighting fungi and pests, a battle that prettier, often more chemically grown commercial fruits don’t face. According to recent research, the stress that the ugly apples experience results in higher levels of fruit acids and antioxidants (both have positive health benefits) than conventional produce. The Journal of Horticultural Science & Biotechnology published a report revealing that apples with scabs actually contain higher levels of the highly beneficial antioxidant phenolic compounds known as phenylpropanoids than apples without scabby peels.

Ugly apples, however, have long been beloved and harvested by discerning cider makers. As Marie and Matt Raboin of Wisconsin’s Brix Farm describe them, these apples are like “a Jackson Pollock canvas bursting with diverse colors and splattered with odd patterns.” They began experimenting with ciders ten years ago and planted their first trees in 2014. With a lot of help from friends and family, they now feature 12 tap lines in their tasting room. And in addition to their own fruit, Brix sources locally from more than a dozen other orchards in Wisconsin as well as mixing in honey, hops, and other fruits to play with flavors.

The Twin Star Orchards, whose motto is ‘ugly apples taste better,’ supplies apples to New York City’s popular Brooklyn Cider House and the Wise Apple hard cider brand proudly stamps “Made With Ugly Apples” on its corks. 

In an interview with NPR, Virginia-based orchardist Eliza Greenman said that she discovered, in her own unofficial experiment, that scarred apples had a sugar content 2-5% higher than unscarred apples taken from the same tree. Higher sugar content leads to higher alcohol content, which results in a better-tasting hard cider. 

The rise in ugly apples’ popularity coincides with the increased consumer interest in imperfect produce along with the growing focus on food sustainability. A recent study concluded that organic apple farming impacts the environment less than conventional apple farming does and recommended that apple producers should follow organic practices if they want consumers to view them as being environmentally conscious.  

Many cider makers source their apples locally or have their own orchards, so it lowers transportation-caused pollution. West Virginia’s Swilled Dog Hard Cider also strives to be more efficient in their apple husbandry by planting more cider-specific apple types. 

Abandoned orchards also are a source of ugly apples.  Abandoned Cider, located in New York’s Hudson Valley, got its name because it sits on a former dairy farm that was also home to an orchard with 100-year-old apple trees. Friends Eric Childs the “Fermentation Guy,” and Martin Bernstein, the “Apple Guy” also forage for apples to include in their ciders. 

Because cider is fermented without heat, cideries have a smaller carbon footprint and are more sustainable than other breweries and distilleries because they utilize less energy. Although apple orchards are simple forests and not biodiverse as traditional forests, their trees serve important ecological roles as they absorb more carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) than any other plant. Some cider makers, like Mead Orchards and Vermont Hard Cider Company, take their energy reduction a step further by utilizing solar power. 

Eliza Greenman might have summed it up best when she said: “making the conscious choice to eat ugly apples is better and cheaper for you as the consumer, protects the environmental quality, and it’s better for me as the farmer. It’s time we challenged the social norm that currently has us demanding glistening orbs of perfection from the growers.”

Ugly apples and organic produce, in general, utilize fewer pesticides, which prevents dangerous runoff that can pollute rivers and lakes. They also serve to combat food waste by cutting down on the huge amounts of food that are left in fields and orchards because of their less than perfect appearance. Harvesting more produce and making more food available helps to reduce the massive food insecurity many communities across the country face. Additionally, fruit fiber left over after the juicing process can be used as soil compost or as livestock feed.

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