Ask just about anyone how many portions of fruit and veg they should be eating a day and I’d wager the vast majority would know that the Government’s recommendation is five. What’s more, research by the Food Standards Authority has shown there is a common understanding that fruit and vegetables play a vital role in tackling a range of diet-related illnesses from type 2 diabetes and obesity, to cancer and heart disease.
Yet it is a sobering fact that despite the Government’s goal of getting us all eating ‘Five-a-Day’ by 2015, a year since then and most people only manage three at best and sales of fresh fruit and vegetables are falling. Between 2007-2014 fruit sales fell 14 per cent, vegetables by five per cent and fresh potatoes by 20 per cent.
So we must ask ourselves how we can address the very obvious fact that nutrition may not sell but convenience and taste clearly does?
Looking at the plethora of healthy eating initiatives, you could argue too much emphasis is on what not to eat. Shoppers are exposed to more and more fast food outlets and ‘ready to go’ foods that are often innutritious and little has been done to help people make healthier choices.
In response, the NFU has produced a report that examines scientific research, global health programmes and industry healthy eating initiatives to produce practical proposals designed to shift the focus away from simply telling people why they should eat more fruit and veg to helping them act on that advice.
‘Fit for the Future’ looks at changes to our eating habits and examines how growers, processors, the food service sector, retailers and government can help deliver a healthier national diet.
A key trend identified is that far fewer of us are regularly eating three meals a day. With only 18 per cent of people now planning their week’s meals in advance, we’re shopping for food more frequently during the week and indulging in regular food or shelf ‘grazing’.
This is something retailers and the food service sector have responded to, with ‘corner shop’ supermarkets for example. But the result has been described somewhat unflatteringly as a ‘food swamp’ - where fruit and veg are crowded out not just on supermarket shelves but more generally on the high street where nutrient-rich food is swamped by energy dense alternatives.
What practical steps can be taken to improve the situation? Well, the report highlights obvious steps such as increasing fruit and veg content in ready meals, offering more healthy snack options, redesigning the layout of retail stores and food service areas in schools and hospitals, and making fruit and veg much more prominent.
How about introducing clear storage instructions for fresh produce, embedded on packaging and available on bags, shelf cards or stickers for loose produce? This would help increase their shelf life.
‘Chilled’ checkouts could allow healthy products to be placed right next to the till.
Farmers like me can explore new crop varieties that can be presented differently as part of a drive to find new ways of delivering healthy convenience options.
I am proud to be a Yorkshire grower and to put my name to this ambitious report. We have to believe that achieving a healthier national diet is achievable and not just (fruit) pie in the sky.
Guy Poskitt produces fresh veg on his farm near Goole and is vice-chairman of the NFU’s national horticulture and potatoes board.