Let me set the stage. According to the newest (2020-2025) Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 80% of Americans do not consume enough fruit and nearly 90% do not consume enough vegetables. Further, intake has not changed considerably over the past 2 decades.
The disturbing part is that we aren’t even talking about large amounts of fruits and vegetables, relatively speaking. For most adults, 1-2 cups of fruit and 1-3 of vegetables are recommended daily. Why has reaching this goal been so elusive for so long? I would contend that our approach as public health professionals could be having unintended consequences on intake.
But this is not an article about berating passionate folks for doing their best to improve public health. It’s about approaching produce intake through the lens of my husband’s mantra, “Always forward, never back.” It is in that vein that I’ll share what actually could make a difference. Just 3 steps – 1. Listen to and connect with the consumer; 2. Share best practices; and 3. Align messaging.
- Listening to and connecting with the consumer. I learned this cardinal rule during my days at the International Food Information Council and it still rings true today. I don’t know about you, but I’m a creature of habit and so are the consumers we are connecting with. We must understand how they are eating fruits and vegetables and how consumption behaviors are evolving over time. For that, I go to the Produce for Better Health Foundation’s (PBH) 2020 State of the Plate research recently released. A couple of nuggets to chew on:
- People are eating fruits and vegetables less frequently now than ever before, with most eating each one time or less per day.
- Vegetable and juice intake is becoming WAY less frequent over time. In fact, vegetable eating occasions are down in 5 of 8 age and generational segments. Worse, fruit/vegetable juice intake is down in ALL age and generational segments.
- Fruit eating occasions are slightly up. Further, fruit is more ubiquitous in its consumption patterns than vegetables – eaten throughout the day and as side dishes, snacks, desserts, etc. Yet, currently, they are consumed less frequently than vegetables.
- Vegetables are largely eaten as side dishes at dinner and, to a lesser extent, lunch.
- The majority of fruit and vegetable eating occasions are at home.
- The majority are consumed fresh – fresh continues to grow as other forms remain static or decrease in each State of the Plate research, released every 5 years.
- Sharing best practices. Let’s face it, there’s not just one way to support Americans in consuming more produce. In fact, it’s well-accepted these days that changes will need to be made throughout the entire food system so that we can collectively make it easy for consumers to eat their fruits and vegetables. At Nutrition On Demand, we are extremely proud to work with the following clients on innovative approaches to increase fruit and vegetable consumption:
- Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH) – Beyond the State of the Plate research, PBH is trailblazing in the area of leveraging behavioral science to help improve fruit and vegetable intake. This involves going beyond what consumers know and tapping into what they feel and what they do.
- Hass Avocado Board (HAB) – People love avocados, and, for a while, they got a bad rap. Now we understand just how healthy the unsaturated fats in avocados are and that they also provide many vitamins and minerals, all in a sodium- and added sugar-free package. With the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans stressing the dire nature of fruit and vegetable underconsumption, we are experiencing a golden opportunity to unite what we want consumers to do with what they already enjoy eating!
- Food Marketing Institute (FMI) – FMI has spent the last 5 years helping to bring Americans back around the table to enjoy more meals as a family. Not only do family meals help bring everyone together, but they provide other health and well-being benefits as well (e.g., increased self-esteem and decreased risky behaviors). We are particularly excited about an unexpected side benefit identified in a recent meta-analysis – a greater consumption of fruits and vegetables.
- McCormick Science Institute (MSI) – MSI has long been on the forefront of science on helping consumers enjoy foods, in their most nutrient-dense forms, through the inclusion of spices and herbs. Their scientific research shows that herbs and spices can lessen the need for added sugars, salt, and saturated fat while helping consumers enjoy healthier foods. Get this – incorporating herbs and spices even resulted in an increase of broccoli consumption in high schoolers!
- Aligning messaging. Hopefully, at this point, there is not anyone out there who would disagree with the basic assumption that we need to make increasing fruit and vegetable consumption a national priority. However, I would contend that doesn’t go far enough. What else needs to be a national priority is unanimity in how to approach consumption—from the top down. I shared what I think are some great examples of what individual organizations are doing in the fruit and vegetable consumption space. Now, to where improvements can be made. First, we (health and nutrition communicators) need to help consumers prioritize and focus. Too often, we want folks to be eating healthfully so badly that we get into the weediest of weeds in telling them how to do so—and it’s just too much (think processed foods, HFCS, functional ingredients, dairy)!
Fruits and vegetables have their own areas of misunderstanding and misinformation. Is frozen produce as healthy as fresh? (It IS.) Does 100% juice count toward the recommended amounts of fruits and veggies? (Totally.) Seriously, I could go on and on.
How about we just agree that we want to help consumers eat more fruits and vegetables. Period. Or, rather, exclamation point! Let’s let them determine where to start – whether it’s frozen corn on Taco Tuesday, OJ with breakfast, packing raisins in a child’s lunch. Anything that speaks to them and makes sense along with everything else to worry about and strive for in life. What if that, by giving consumers room, we empower them to eat and enjoy more? And isn’t that the point? Who’s with me?!