Gala, Granny Smith, Fuji… there are as many kinds of apples in the world with as many different flavor profiles as you could imagine—and then some. Indeed, they’re so prevalent that many of us grow up hearing the same thing about them repeated ad nauseum: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” But where does the saying “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” come from in the first place?
The saying itself is what’s called a proverb—a simple, short saying used to express a thought or belief that’s widely perceived to be true. That doesn’t mean they are always right, of course; in fact, they often aren’t. Proverbs are considered to be a type of folklore.
But even when they’re not entirely true, proverbs do sometimes have at least some truth to them—which makes a certain amount of sense, given that they’re usually based on common sense or anecdotal evidence. That’s likely the case with the idea that eating an apple a day can help keep you healthy—although the history of the phrase might not be quite what you’re expecting.
Here’s what you need to know about the saying—including how true it is.
According to Caroline Taggart, author of An Apple a Day: Old-Fashioned Proverbs and Why They Still Work—a volume which digs into the history of and truth behind the numerous proverbs that pepper our everyday speech—the saying “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” is much newer than most people probably think. “It sounds as if it should be really old,” Taggart told the Washington Post in 2013, “but in fact, the first recorded use is in the 1860s, when it is said to be an old saying from Pembrokeshire in Wales.”
Per the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, the precise year in which this usage was recorded was 1866, when it appeared in an issue of Notes and Queries. A scholarly journal focused on, according to its own description, “English language and literature, lexicography, history, and scholarly antiquarianism,” Notes and Queries has been in publication since 1849—and is still published quarterly today. The ninth volume of the journal’s third series includes on page 153 two proverbs recorded by John Pavin Phillips: One from Shropshire and one from Pembrokeshire. And according to Phillips, the Pembrokeshire proverb reads, “Eat an apple on going to bed, and you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread.”
Of course, just because 1866 is when the saying was first recorded doesn’t mean that it’s also when it was invented; by dint of the fact that it’s a proverb, it likely existed for at least some substantial period before then. Unfortunately, though, that’s where the paper trail runs cold.
So how did we get from the somewhat lengthier version of the saying recorded in 1866 to the shorter, pithier version we use today? That’s also not clear, but it’s worth noting that countless variations have been recorded over the years.
For example, in 1913, writer and linguist Elizabeth Mary Wright made a note of one known in a specific dialect in Chapter XIV—the chapter focusing on “Charms and Medical Lore” —of her book Rustic Speech and Folk-Lore. “For maintaining good health and keeping the doctor out of the house, there are in use certain homely prescriptions,” wrote Wright. “For example: Ait a happle avore gwain to bed, An’ you’ll make the doctor beg his bread” —a variation from Devon which roughly translates to, “Eat an apple before going to bed, and you’ll make the doctor beg his bread.” (The use of the word “beg” implies that the doctor will have to ask for bread to be given to them as a boon or gift, as the good health bestowed upon those who eat apples will mean they have no patients—and therefore no work.)
However, Wright’s book also includes the version of the saying that we use today—and notes that it was already widely in use by that time, as well. “Or,” she wrote, following the Devon variation, “as the more popular version runs: An apple a day Keeps the doctor away.”
This version of the phrase had previously been recorded, though, meaning that Wright’s 1913 book isn’t the first time the now-classic “An apple a day” variation appeared in print. Indeed, it seems this version was already well-known just a few decades after the Pembrokeshire proverb hit print. In a report on an exhibition of fruits and other plants hosted by the North Wales and Border Counties Pomological Society published in the Wrexham and Denbighshire Advertiser and Cheshire Shropshire and North Wales Register on Nov. 26, 1887, a Mr. Chilton is noted as having “advocated the increased use of fruit, for he believed in the old saying, An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
No matter when it first appeared, though, it’s clear that the version of the saying reading, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” has won out as the most memorable over time, likely due to its simplicity. “One of the odd things about this proverb is that it means exactly what it says,” said Caroline Taggart to the Washington Post. “Apples are good for you. That may be why ‘an apple a day’ is popular. You can take it at face value.” And, hey, the fact that it’s short, sweet, and rhymes can’t hurt, either.
The Truth of the Matter
Of course, the biggest question about the saying these days isn’t necessarily about where it came from, but rather about whether it’s true in the first place: Does an apple a day really keep the doctor away?
The research so far is somewhat inconclusive. One study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine in 2015 which directly examined the association between daily apple consumption and physician visits found that whether or not people eat an apple every day doesn’t affect how many times they visit the doctor per year; nor were there any differences between apple-eaters and non-apple-eaters in overnight hospital stays or mental health visits. The researchers did find, though, that “the small fraction of U.S. adults who eat an apple a day do appear to use fewer prescription medications,” per their paper on the subject.
(It’s worth noting, as Daniel Pendick did over at Harvard Health Publishing’s Harvard Health Blog, that this report was published in JAMA Internal Medicine’s April Fool’s Day issue by “a pack of parodists from Dartmouth College, the University of Michigan School of Nursing, and the Veteran Affairs Medical Center in White River.” However, Pendick also points out that the report is “based on actual nutrition data collected from nearly 8,400 men and women—753 of whom ate an apple a day—and follows rigorous study methods.” Even if it was sort of meant as a joke, the analysis does hold up to scrutiny.)
Even so, though, there’s no denying that apples do provide some valuable health benefits when regularly consumed. They’re a good source of both vitamin C and fiber, as well as of flavonoids—antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables with strong anti-inflammatory and immune system benefits. Furthermore, as WebMD points out, some studies have found that the chemicals and fiber found in apple peels can guard against heart and blood vessel damage; that they can lower your cholesterol; and that they may help guard against certain cancers and type 2 diabetes.
Even if an apple a day doesn’t exactly keep the doctor away, including apples in your food plan might do you some good anyway. Bon appetit!