History behind ‘An apple a day’

Deb Lindsey/For the Washington Post - Apples are low in calories and sodium, and high in fiber and Vitamin C.

Apples have long been associated with a healthful diet. The fruit is low in calories and sodium, and high in fiber and Vitamin C.

But just how long ago did humans coin the adage “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”?

(Andrew Bannecker/For the Washington Post)

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“It sounds as if it should be really old, but in fact the first recorded use is in the 1860s, when it is said to be an old saying from Pembrokeshire in Wales,” said Caroline Taggart, author of “An Apple a Day: Old-Fashioned Proverbs and Why They Still Work.”

The original phrase, Taggart said, was, ‘‘Eat an apple on going to bed, and you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread.” In the 19th century and early 20th, the phrase evolved to “an apple a day, no doctor to pay” and “an apple a days sends the doctor away,” while the phrasing now commonly used was first recorded in 1922.

Although the term is fairly new, Taggart said, the concept is quite old. Ancient Romans and Anglo-Saxons, she said, knew about the healthful properties of apples. The fruit also pops up in traditional Ayurvedic medicine, dating back about 1,500 years in southern Asia.

The popularity of the phrase has not been lost on modern science, either. Researchers and doctors have conducted numerous studies on the health benefits of apples — exploring whether they can actually reduce trips to the doctor.

In 2012, an Ohio State University study found that eating an apple a day helped significantly lower levels of bad cholesterol in middle-aged adults, and in 2011 a Dutch study found that eating apples and pears might help prevent strokes.

The longevity of the phrase “an apple a day,” Taggart explained, comes from its simplicity.

“One of the odd things about this proverb is that it means exactly what it says,” Taggart said. “Apples are good for you. That may be why ‘an apple a day’ is popular. You can take it at face value.”

 
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