September, 1999

Fruits of Thought

Saving 5 A Day

What is 5 A Day achieving? What is the relationship between produce consumption and public health? Does joint industry promotion of widely disparate products, which can be prepared in widely disparate ways, make any sense if the goal is to improve public health? These are just a few of the issues brought to the fore by the recent presentation of a new analysis of data from the USDA’s annual surveys from 1994-1996.

The analysis is devastating: reviewing the Agriculture Department’s Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals, Catherine Champagne of Louisiana State University found that even children under seven years of age were getting 27.3 percent of their vegetables as French fries and potato chips. The numbers continued to rise as children got older, and among sub-groups, such as black teenagers, the percentage of vegetable servings consumed in the form of French fries and chips hit 40 percent.

These numbers point to the soft underbelly of the 5 A Day program. Foods are rarely “healthy” or “unhealthy” based on their innate characteristics. Instead, most foods have various assortments of vitamins and other traits, many of which we barely understand. The products can be made more or less calorie- and fat-rich, depending on the way they are prepared.

Bluntly, we have absolutely no idea how the interplay of produce and its preparation impacts on the “healthiness” of the product. Broccoli, for example, is the king of healthy vegetables. If you like it slathered with a high-fat cheese sauce, we know it becomes higher in fat, but we don’t know how the overall dish will impact your health.

The 5 A Day program has always wrestled with these issues. From the program’s early days, the National Cancer Institute – a government agency that helps fund the 5 A Day program – has restricted the program from promoting certain produce items and promoting certain uses. So, you don’t find “high fat” items such as avocados or coconuts being promoted, officially at least, by the 5 A Day program, and you don’t find desserts such as strawberry shortcake being promoted by the 5 A Day program either.

There is no scientific basis for this. There is no evidence that avocados are, per se, unhealthy. Yes they have a higher fat content than some other items, but research in the area of different fats is still in its infancy, and the interplay in the diet of saturated, unsaturated and monounsaturated fats is still being discovered.

Part of the problem is that 5 A Day does not really teach people why certain things are recommended. As such, unless one simply has a willingness to accept on faith whatever the government and public health officials tell, one is going to be left with a kind of healthy skepticism about all this.

The 5 A Day program is built around several distinct areas in which it is believed peoples’ diets are positively affected by eating more produce:

First, the idea is that by eating more “good” calories from fruits and vegetables, one eats less “bad” calories from fatty and unhealthy sources. If you eat 2,500 calories a day and simply add an additional 500 calories a day by consuming more fruits and vegetables, it is not at all clear that this will help your health.

Second, the notion is that produce items often contain unique properties. These could be antioxidants, beta carotene, a number of vitamins and minerals and a lot more stuff that help in one’s quest to be healthy. How these help, if these things help at all, and how different combinations of food, activity, genetics, etc., play out is still far more speculation than science.

The truth is that we have a problem in the industry. The problem is that 5 A Day has come to be a kind of vegetarian version of the sacred cow. No one dares question it for fear of being attacked.

My family has sold produce for as long as we can trace, and nobody wants this industry to sell more product than does this author. But we are coming out of a period in which some of the industry’s biggest players have been simply devastated by market conditions, particularly in California. It is just too easy to say that it takes time to change people’s eating habits. Yes it does take time, but it also takes the right strategy:

First, NCI has to be approached and if the organization is not cooperative, NCI’s funders in Congress must be approached. Furthermore, we have to get the freedom to think sensibly about the way people actually eat. If 5 A Day is ever to work, it must have greater flexibility to promote produce.

Second, 5 A Day and the NCI have to start being an awful lot more forthcoming about the actual science behind their recommendations. Why they recommend one thing and not another matters, and they have to be ready to back up their pronouncements.

Third, the only national produce promotion program is completely under the thumb of government bureaucrats. This is simply unacceptable. 5 A Day is part of the answer. When a product has an endorsement from NCI and health professionals, it would be a shame not to use it. But it is not enough.

This “eat-your-vegetables; they-are-good-for-you” promotion for produce is going to be death for the industry. Those spinach salads covered in bacon are delicious; ice cream sundaes surrounded with bananas and fresh fruit are loved by all. Salad greens covered with feta, olives and topped with slices of the finest steak are a treat. If we don’t give consumers more of a reason to eat our products than they have for consuming their prescription medication, then the falling sales, low grower returns and the shrinking retail produce profits really will be our fault.  pb