July, 2003

Fruits of Thought

Produce And The Atkins Diet

Many opportunities come about as a result of paradigm shifts, moments when our way of looking at things changes. The discovery of America, for example, was really an outgrowth of a paradigm shift that enabled people to perceive the world as round, rather than flat. It was in this shift in understanding that gave sailors the sense they could sail without falling off the earth.

A similar paradigm shift is occurring in nutrition, and it is one the produce industry is having trouble dealing with. The 5 A Day program, backed by the authoritative National Cancer Institute, can confidently urge increased produce consumption for better health. The produce industry can ride the wave. But the main public health problem today is obesity, not cancer, and here the role of produce is more problematic.

Recently fast food chains have come out with new salad products, and the offerings are by most accounts very successful, including helping the chains by drawing more women into their outlets. But when a self-proclaimed public interest group attacked the new offering, pointing out that they contained products like cheese, bacon, fried chicken and in the case of McDonalds, Newman’s Own Salad dressing that has 290 calories in a single serve packet, the group’s urging of a more vegetarian salad offering did not meet with universal praise by nutritionists.

Instead, the paradigm shift kicked in, with prominent professors disputing not whether it would be better to eat an all-vegetarian diet, but the practicality of it. They recognize, in other words, that the best diet in the world is worthless if the meals are not satisfying enough to keep people on the diet.

The public has been way ahead of the professors, and this accounts for the great success of the Atkins diet and the many other variants on this high protein diet. These diets allow for the consumption of high fat foods that people feel more satisfied eating.

The latest research indicates that there is no more health risk on Atkins than on any other diet program. Even if there was some health risk, if the diet helps people lose weight and keep it off, the health benefits of a decline in obesity are likely to overwhelm any negative effects.

But in an Atkins world, the produce industry has been uncertain how to proceed. So, in general, the industry has proceeded as if Atkins doesn’t exist – despite the fact that at any given time, tens of millions of Americans are trying to use some variant of the program to lose or maintain weight.

Part of the problem is that the big money in produce has typically been in higher value fruit than in vegetables, because Atkins is not unfriendly to vegetables.

The Atkins program has many phases, running through the initial induction phase all the way through the more liberal lifetime maintenance phase. Even under the strictest induction phase, though, Atkins urges three cups of salad vegetables or two cups of salad vegetables plus one cup of other vegetables a day. Look at the allowed items:

 

Salad Vegetables
You can have two to three cups per day:
Alfalfa sprouts Chicory Endive Lettuce Pepper
Arugula Chives Escarole Mache Radicchio
Bok Choy Cucumber Fennel Mushrooms Radishes
Celery Daikon Jicama Parsley Romaine

 

 

Other Vegetables
You can have one cup per day if salad does not exceed two cups per day:
Artichoke hearts Cabbage Kale kohlrabi Spaghetti squash
Asparagus Cauliflower Leeks Spinach
Bamboo shoots Celery root Okra String or wax beans
Bean sprouts Chard Onion Summer squash
Beet greens Collard greens Pumpkin Tomato
Broccoli Dandelion greens Rhubarb Turnips
Broccoli rabe Eggplant Sauerkraut Water chestnuts
Brussel sprouts Hearts of Palm Snow peas Zucchini

 

Now tell the truth: Do you eat three cups of these healthful vegetables each day? It is not common. Although this is the strictest part of Atkins, when you move to the lifetime maintenance phase, you can eat almost anything you want if you keep your carbohydrate level down. In fact, if everyone really followed Atkins, it is probable that non-starchy vegetable consumption would increase.

As the plan moves into its second phase, called Ongoing Weight Loss or OWL, Atkins urges more consumption of vegetables and starts adding in berries, avocados, melon and other fruits.

Here we have an enormously popular diet program, one so popular that it has given rise to its own line of packaged foods displayed in supermarkets across America, and there is barely a peep from the produce industry attempting to capitalize on it.

The marketing problem with 5 A Day is that people’s immediate concern is not so much health – with its long term implications related to cancer and heart disease – as it is being fat. The motivation to lose weight is powerful. But few consumers actually study the Atkins book and, all too easily, these types of diets become characterized as allowing unlimited meats and cheese but no fruit and limited vegetables.

The opportunity for the produce industry is to continue the paradigm shift to say that Atkins involves more than just eating steak. In the induction phase, look at the world of vegetables you are supposed to eat and as you move into maintenance, urge people to use their scarce carbohydrate allowance on fresh fruits with their wonderful anti-oxidants and phytonutrients rather than on some other product.

Produce marketers and the industry as a whole, however, can’t keep preaching cancer, when the concern is now obesity.  pb