December, 1996

Fruits of Thought

Of Fat, Fruit And 5 A Day

Aristotle had expectations of people. If he demonstrated, for example, that the rational thing to do was to eat a fish, he expected the fish would be eaten! Our age can be called many things, but of being accused of being Aristotelian, Americans in the last decade of the twentieth century run little risk.

After all, with every publication and media report celebrating the virtues of the low-fat diet, a new report just out lets us know that, in terms of consumption, three of the fastest growing foods are those staples of good diet: hamburgers, chicken nuggets and French fries. Indeed, even the high culture has gotten into the act of celebrating indulgence. An eminent professor from Cornell University came out a while ago with a book explaining that cigarettes are sublime and he is back now to illuminate that fat is back.

Even when vice pays homage to virtue by, say, buying Snackwell brand low-fat cookies, it seems that many take the low-fat status as license to finish the whole bag…or more.

What happened to the health revolution? Well, there are a lot of theories. Some point to a kind of fin de siecle madness as we approach the next millennium — eat, drink and be merry for the future is unknown. More probably, when baby boomers were in their twenties and thirties, they liked celebrating the trim physique. Now, in their forties and fifties and finding the battle against billowing a hard one to fight, there is a sense of resignation to the forces of time and aging. Certainly there is a sense of the desirability of shifting the field of battle away from a focus on maintaining the physique of a twenty year old.

In fact, it is not fully certain how widespread the acceptance of a low-fat world ever was. To a large extent our perceptions are shaped by the “knowledge class” in academia and the media. For most people, our evidence is that there has been precious little change in diet. What change there has been seems to be motivated by economics and new options more that the recognition of health related science.

Of course the science regarding nutrition is pretty abysmal. Despite a claim a day that this or that food is “healthy” or fights disease, we really know very little. And the amount of bad science done in the United States each year is astounding.

What is more, despite all the noise, the claims actually made are rather modest. I once cornered a very eminent doctor and researcher and asked him, point blank: If a person followed exercise and nutrition recommendations perfectly, what would it add to his life span: His answer: “On average, maybe three months.” In fact, newer research is pointing out that we may have a sort of “calorie bank” that we are permitted to burn through in life. So, intensive exercise, for example, may actually lead to a shorter life span!

Now, none of this means that we shouldn’t eat well and exercise. For most people, quality of life is at least as important as quantity. In addition, people are style conscious; though once upon a time a “Rubenesque” woman was beautiful and an “imposing” man worthy of respect, today’s standards are different. Some posit that it all relates to class. Plumpness was once celebrated because it gave proof that one had the means to eat bountifully at a time when many did not. Today, a svelte body indicates one has the leisure time to spend countless hours at the gym perhaps with a personal trainer — upper class attributes.

Yet, the counter-revolution is here. Cigars are big. Martinis are back. A question: Is produce well positioned? I fear not.

To some extent one has to play the cards one is dealt and, certainly produce is healthy. What is more, the government, through the National Cancer Institute, is willing to put up funds to help the 5 A Day effort. So this is what the industry is going for, and emphasizing it makes sense.

Still, it is obvious there is something missing. The devotion to 5 A Day, to the exclusion of all other promotional dimensions, is increasingly turning produce into a medicine and, as such, severely limiting the market potential for our industry.

We have no real evidence that per capita consumption of produce is rising. 5 A Day, of course, is a long-term effort to change behavior and it may well yield results, eventually. The problem with long-term programs, though, is that it is easy to postpone accountability. The results are always going to show up tomorrow. And, tomorrow, of course, is always a day away.

Healthfulness is an attribute and, doubtless, the pursuit of it has a place in people’s lives. Yet, if the explosion of cigar smoking points to anything, it is that human beings have other needs as well. Why position our products as only capable of filling the need for healthfulness, when luxuriant produce can also fill the human desire for indulgence?

The National Cancer Institute has imposed on 5 A Day endless restrictions. That is why no 5 A Day literature features luscious desserts filled with fruits. That is why avocados are missing from all that 5 A Day material. The NCI’s right, but that means 5 A Day cannot be the sole promotional program for the industry. The NCI’s rules keep 5 A Day as a public information program. Promotion, though, requires much more. I want crudités with rich dips on the table with those cigars and martinis. I want strawberry shortcake covered with whipped cream, apple pie with ice cream and kiwi tarts all served as decadent and delectable desserts. I want the produce industry to realize that maximizing the sales potential of our products will require a different type of promotional approach. We can’t count on 5 A Day to do it all.  pb