Jayne Dowle: It’s a fruitless effort to try and squeeze in 10-a-day

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WAS it an April Fool’s spoof? Eat 10 portions of fruit and veg a day to ensure you live a long and healthy life? These are the optimum new recommendations in a report from researchers at University College, London.

Come on. These food scientists must be having a laugh. It’s hard enough trying to pack in the previously recommended five daily portions. Be honest. How many did you have yesterday? And don’t count crisps (potatoes) or wine (grapes).

According to nutritionist Gunter Kuhnle, the average adult intake in Britain is two portions of fruit a day and 1.5 of vegetables.

By that reckoning, most of us are already struggling to follow the existing World Health Organisation guidelines. The thought of doubling up is likely to send us straight to the biscuit tin.

I like to think my family eats pretty healthily already, but I’m stuck as to how I would fit 10 of these into our daily diet. Send the children to school with chopped up melon for break time? They’re just going to forget about it until it ferments and turns to mouldy gunk in the bottom of their bags. Cram three kinds of lettuce onto my lunchtime sandwich? Would this work? Does lettuce count as one though, or do three different kinds count as three different portions?

I’m struggling here and I’ve got an O-level in Home Economics. Not that this qualifies me to be a food scientist, I grant you. Still, at least I have some basic understanding of what makes for a healthy diet.

And at least I cook a proper family meal every day. I even save the vegetable peelings to give to my friend’s chickens. I take a perverse pride in seeing the evidence of my endeavours helping others, even chickens.

See. I do listen. As healthy-eating campaigns go, “five-a-day” has been pretty successful. The mantra runs through my head as I shop. It’s been adopted by schools and it’s rammed down your throat with posters every time you visit the doctor or sit in a hospital waiting room. I even hear people muttering about it in the supermarket.

My first question is why mess with the “five-a-day” approach? I know these new recommendations are just research at the moment. However, if they become official policy, people will switch off. If those in charge of public health move the goalposts every time a new piece of evidence comes to light, the message is lost.

It is already befuddling enough. One tomato is considered a “serving”, but according to the NHS website, it looks like you need to eat almost a whole lettuce for another. It doesn’t say anything about the difference between iceberg and rocket either. And also, as previously outlined, unless you live a life which consists mostly of shopping and cooking, cramming in 10-a-day is a pretty unattainable target. Where are you going to put all those vegetables? In carrot cake? Surely this misses the point entirely.

Now my second question. I’ve said that five-a-day has been pretty successful. However, there are still many, many families in Great Britain who never switch on their oven or boil a pan of water for cabbage. Indeed, there are plenty of children who think that the world of vegetables begins and ends with the baked bean. My friend, a school dinner lady, dreads the annual Christmas dinner. She spends most of it cajoling children to eat food which they simply fail to recognise. Potatoes which aren’t chips? Carrots? Cauliflower cheese? Yuck. The food scientists in their labs might not know this, but there are children out there who wouldn’t know a vegetable if they fell over it. Surely, it would be a much more productive use of scientific time to concentrate on finding ways to bring everyone into the healthy eating fold instead of trying to confuse those of us already doing our best?

To this end, campaigners are calling for fruit and vegetables to be subsidised because they are perceived as “expensive”. I disagree with this on principle, and not just because I wonder where the subsidy money is going to come from.

A large sack of potatoes costs £8.50 at my local market garden. It lasts us around six weeks. A portion of chips at the takeaway costs at least £1. It doesn’t take a maths genius – or a nutritionist – to work out which is the cheaper and healthier option here. They need a reality check.

There are children growing up in our region with rickets, a condition which belongs to a previous century. And here we are arguing about whether a handful of blueberries constitutes a portion.

Let’s not make it too complicated, shall we? We all want to live healthier and longer lives. Eating well doesn’t just benefit us individually either. Its knock-on effects could potentially save the NHS billions of pounds in treating conditions exacerbated by poor diet. Conflicting advice does nothing but confuse and alienate those that it is intended to help. That’s why I’m sticking to five-a-day for now. And, yes, I’m including wine in that.

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