With a new wide reaching study stressing the importance of getting our five fruits and vegetables a day, one food expert believes it’s time to take marketing tips from the big drug companies on how we sell healthy foods.
The study, published in July in the British Medical Journal, is a meta analysis of 16 cohort studies that involved more than 830,000 participants in total from the United States, Asia and Europe, making it one of the most in depth pieces of research to ever look at whether the five-a-day recommendation really does lead to health benefits like lower heart disease risk, lower cancer rates and, ultimately, lower mortality rates.
Analyzing the diets, health and mortality information of the population samples, the U.S. and Chinese researchers found that each serving of fruit and vegetables consumed per day lowered the chance of mortality as a result of common health problems like heart disease by, on average, five percent.
However, while previous studies have shown that there might be benefits to eating in excess of five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, this new meta analysis found that the benefits appear to stop at five portions, with no extra benefits after that. The exact reason why the benefit of fruit and vegetables should plateau at five-a-day isn’t clear, but scientists do have a few theories.
“For the reduction in total mortality, we found a threshold of around five servings a day of fruit and vegetables, after which the risk of death did not reduce further,” the authors are quoted as saying. “Possible mechanisms might involve the availability of nutrients and the digestibility of fruit and vegetables, but further studies are needed to confirm our results.”
The research revealed something else too. While for every other examined health complaint the five-a-day diet had a positive impact, the same couldn’t be said for cancer. It didn’t matter how many fruit or vegetables people ate, it seemed to make no difference to their risk of cancer — though it would be interesting for future studies to examine whether the five-a-day diet has an impact on the likelihood of surviving cancer or the recovery time.
This is being called an important analysis because it helps to solidify that, at the very least, that five-a-day recommendation is sound. The problem is, most people aren’t even eating two or three portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
With that in mind, Catherine Collins, principal dietitian at St George’s Hospital in London who wasn’t connected to this study, told the BBC Radio 4′s Today program that she believes we should be marketing the five-a-day diet more like drug companies market the benefits of their products:
“If this was a drug and you said, if you take this drug, it will reduce your risk of premature death by 25 percent, we would be making millions.”
That could be money given back to local farmers and pumped back into health care services, as well as ultimately alleviating the health burden that our medical services face as a result of our poor diets. Of course, there’s a lot to dislike about the marketing techniques some drug companies employ, but the basic point seems sound. Fortunately, we have more homegrown examples of how to potentially market the five-a-day diet: namely, the idea of superfoods.
We now know that the superfood spiel is misleading for the fact that it does a disservice to the rest of the fruits and vegetables not currently in vogue that offer great nutritional profiles and benefits. Nevertheless, there is a lesson here: we have seen the superfood label quickly catch on and make some foods, like blueberries and quinoa, staples of healthy living books, blogs and even supermarket food campaigns.
If we could ensure that we lead with facts and not hard-to-define slogans, there’s no reason to think that we couldn’t replicate those results with other fruit and vegetables, and indeed with the five-a-day diet, while remaining truthful about what fruits and vegetables can and can’t do for us. Throwing money into marketing campaigns that specifically highlight the benefits of fruit and vegetables would not only improve our health, but our sense of well-being too — and that, really, is money well spent.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.
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