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Study: Apples do not, in fact, have magic powers

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An apple a day may be a better marker of your social status than whether you'll see a doctor this year, according to a first-of-its-kind study.

In order to probe the old "apple a day keeps the doctor away" adage, researchers writing in JAMA Internal Medicine compared people who typically eat apples every day with people who don't, measuring how much each group went to see a doctor.

The researchers — from the University of Michigan, Dartmouth, and Veteran Affairs — found that apple eaters did seem to visit doctors less but were also relatively well-educated and less likely to be smokers, both characteristics that are associated with better health. When they controlled for these socioeconomic factors (as well as the fact that apple eaters tended to come from racial and ethnic minorities), the difference between the apple eaters and non-apple eaters disappeared.

In other words, eating apples didn't reduce doctor visits and may be a better symbol of the social determinants of health than any magical powers apples themselves confer.

There's no solid evidence that any single fruit will improve your health

The study, published in the April Fools' issue of the journal, was deliberately lighthearted. It's also an observational study, which, unlike a controlled experiment, examines phenomena that are already occurring. So it can only describe correlation and not whether one thing caused another. (For more on why that matters, read here.)

But even if it were some perfectly designed experiment, it's unlikely the consumption of one fruit would be a health game-changer, which is why the research belonged in the journal's April 1 issue.

The greatest contribution of this study may be to illustrate how gullible we are when it comes to claims about "superfoods," particularly given the kind of backing behind them. From the study:

Promoted by the lay media and powerful special interest groups, including the US Apple Association, the beneficial effects of apple consumption have been variably attributed to fiber, essential vitamins and minerals, and flavanoids." Apples have also been "associated with positive health effects as far reaching as weight loss, prevention of neurologic degradation, cancer suppression, reduction in asthma symptoms, and improved cardiovascular health.

This latest finding about apples builds on the revelation that contrary to fruit-industry group hype, oranges do not have magical powers to prevent or treat sickness, either.

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