They don’t hold back, those scientists, do they? One minute it’s five a day and then, instead of a small increase, perhaps with a letter explaining why their services are so much improved and there is more to come, hence the rise, and they are sure you will understand, they go straight for a 100 per cent hike. But how wise is it, given that the 2012 National Diet and Nutrition Survey showed that only 31 per cent of British adults and 10 per cent of children got their five a day in the first place? Does this updated advice mean that we will eat more fresh produce or simply mean that a greater number of us will fail?
The research from Imperial College suggests that eating 10 portions of fruits and vegetables a day reduces the risk of cancer by 13 per cent, stroke by 33 per cent and premature death by 31 per cent. This was based on 95 studies involving two million people and it is estimated that the increase could prevent 7.8 million premature deaths worldwide. Who wouldn’t want to improve the odds in our favour to that degree simply by changing what we eat?
There are several reasons why eating fruits and vegetables have such benefit (even at a mere five a day). One of the main pluses is fibre, which, in these days of probiotics, gluten free and superfoods from far-away places, is as dull and mundane as a Rich Tea biscuit sitting in a display of brightly coloured macaroons at Ladurée.
By way of reminder, fibre is a group of substances including cellulose, inulin and pectin made from the part of the plant that we human beings can’t digest. There are two types: soluble fibre that breaks down in water and insoluble that stays intact when mixed with water. According to the NHS, we need at least 18g of fibre a day, but bear in mind that a 40g serving of wholegrain cereal contains around 5g of fibre, a small baked potato with the skin has 3g, a small can of baked beans has 7g and 33g of almonds has 2.4g.
In reality, how many of us will bother totting these or other amounts up to get to the recommended minimum of 18g a day? Of course eating 10 portions of fruit or vegetables a day almost guarantees that we will get our 18g fibre a day, so maybe that’s what we should focus on.
Here’s an idea. We know that marketing works, so why not label fruit and vegetables accordingly? There are 256 authorised health claims; surely some of them can be applied to the fruit and vegetable aisle. Looking at fibre, for example, the two approved claims relate to an acceleration of intestinal transit and an increase in faecal bulk. Neither is palatable, but there is a third option: simply marking fruit and vegetables as being ‘high fibre’. We don’t need to go into detail.
Producers can go further — if a food contains more than 15 per cent of the recommended daily intake of a nutrient per 100g then it can be labelled a ‘source of vitamin X’. If there is 30 per cent then a ‘high in vitamin X’ claim can be made.
The manufacturers of processed and packaged food take full advantage of this and mark their food accordingly with high fibre, rich in vitamin X or mineral Y, gluten-free or dairy-free. That’s because these messages work. Packaged foods are stuffed with marketing, so let’s apply them to fresh fruits and vegetables, even if they are sold loose.
It makes sense that if the clearest, strongest health claims are boldly displayed by the foods we should be eating more of we would take more notice in those few seconds when we make decisions about what to buy.
Why stop there? Some nutrients have allowable claims about the specific aspects of human health categorised into areas such as energy, cholesterol, blood clotting and skin health. For example, if a food contains the appropriate amount of, say, magnesium, then there are claims to be made about bone and tooth health, energy production, the nervous system and brain function. Why not make such claims about broccoli, given that it contains the amount of fibre and magnesium to qualify? There are dozens of foods lurking in the fruit and vegetable aisle that we can make legal, fair and authorised claims about. Imagine if a head of broccoli not only had the name of the farmer who grew it but also claimed to be good for bone health and energy production?
Sticking with broccoli, given that it also contains enough chromium per 100g to make a claim of being ‘high in chromium’, then why not take that further and identify the relevant claims (in this case relating to glucose levels in the blood and macronutrient metabolism).
This could mean that the broccoli is marked as being good for reducing appetite or cutting sugar cravings, both of which could be extensions of the messages that are currently allowed.
There are countless claims to be made about the food we should be eating, yet they are mostly used to sell the foods that we shouldn’t. Surely changing this is better than just telling us to eat yet more.