Lucky number seven

NEW RESEARCH suggests that recommended guidelines for daily frui and veg intake need to increase from five portions to seven. This could be hard to swallow given current intakes.


When it comes to fruit and veg seven is the new five, according to research in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. Researchers from University College London studied the eating habits of more than 65,000 people in England from 2001 to 2013 and found that eating seven or more portions of fruit and vegetables reduces the risk of death by cancer and heart disease by 25% and 31% respectively. Current government guidelines recommend five.


“Our study shows that people following Australia’s ‘Go for 2 + 5’ advice will reap huge health benefits,” says Oyinlola Oyebode, the study’s lead author. “The clear message here is that the more fruit and vegetables you eat, the less likely you are to die at any age.”


The numbers are daunting for a UK public who have long struggled to up their fruit and veg intake. Statistics released last month
by Leatherhead Food Research showed that consumers are eating about 4.3 portions a day. The 1,185 consumers were also asked if they could manage seven portions, but nearly half said it would be difficult. “Many consumers believe they are actually eating enough fruit and vegetables and can’t imagine how they would incorporate more into their diet,” explains Leatherhead’s strategic insight manager, Emma Gubisch.


There is little doubt that seven a day would require a shift in consumer mindset and behaviour – especially given large variations in consumption. It has been 10 years since the government launched its five-a-day initiative and there is evidence that average intakes might be lower than 4.3 and falling.


Research published in October by the retail analysts Mintel found that 16% of households were cutting back on fruit and veg and just 24% of the country ate the recommended five portions. In the US, a study published by American University researchers in February’s Pediatrics journal showed a “small, but significant, association between the prices of fruit and vegetables and high child body mass index”. 


When prices go up, families switch to processed foods with higher calories. In the case of fruit and vegetables, they might also turn to canned and frozen options. However, UCL’s study – the strength of which comes from the big numbers involved using data from the real world rather than a survey of a small sample – warns that canned and frozen fruit appeared to increase risk of death by 17%.


The British Frozen Food Federation says these results are “highly misleading” given that frozen and canned were categorised together. The researchers, who also found no benefit from fruit juice, agree that these findings are “difficult to interpret”.


Oyebode explains: “The negative health impacts of the sugar may well outweigh any benefits. Another possibility is that there
are confounding factors that we could not control for, such as poor access to fresh groceries among people who have pre- existing health conditions, hectic lifestyles or who live in deprived areas.”


In 2012, the government introduced new pledges to its Public Health Responsibility Deal to encourage more fruit and vegetables to be added to ready meals. Many supermarkets have committed to expand their fresh produce sections. Frozen, canned and dried fruits are all included, as are juices.


One of those signed up is the food distributor Bidvest 3663. It’s working hard to introduce healthier, more sustainable menus, but it’s not always easy. “We would love to go into schools and say you need to serve X amount of fruit and veg but all we can do is support and inspire,” said its national accounts marketing manager, Philippa Norton, recently.


Though the targets appear challenging, Oyebode is also keen to inspire rather than alienate. “People shouldn’t feel daunted by
a big target like seven,” he says. “Whatever your starting point, it is always worth eating more fruit and vegetables. In our study even those eating one to three portions had a significantly lower risk than those eating less than one.”