If fruit and vegetables are so great, everyone must be eating tons! Well, they aren't. The latest survey from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, published in March using data collected from 1998 to 2002, found that just 28% of American adults get their basic two servings of fruit, and 32% get their three vegetables.
And today, those recommendations are even higher. Fruits and Veggies -- More Matters, the program that has replaced the earlier 5 A Day campaign, suggests four to 13 servings, based on age, gender and activity level.
Education plays a significant role in fruit and vegetable consumption, says Barbara Boyce, vice president of programs at Produce for Better Health Foundation that ran the 5 A Day program and now runs the new More Matters campaigns. In its 2005 consumer survey, Produce for Better Health Foundation found that Americans who knew of the 5 A Day message spent an average of $111 more annually on fruits and vegetables.
But education alone doesn't seem to ensure that people eat more of the good stuff. A recent unpublished analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 50% of Americans know about the importance of eating fruits and vegetables, although 90% do not get their recommended intake.
The reasons -- or excuses -- are complex, says Tom Baranowski, professor of pediatrics and leader of the behavioral nutrition group with the USDA-funded Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine.
First, we are genetically programmed to like salty, fatty, very sweet foods, which hardly describes fruits and vegetables.
But fast foods and junk foods also have immense marketing campaigns, which strongly influence children. McDonald's spends $1 billion every year on marketing; in 2004, the budget for Produce for Better Health was $9.6 million. "We don't have the dollars to do paid advertising. It's hard to compete," Boyce says.
Fruit and vegetable companies are trying to turn the tide; Grimmway Farms is using SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer to sell carrots; Boskovich Farms is exploiting these popular Nickelodeon characters to promote spinach. Imagination Farms has paired with Walt Disney Co. to sell Disney Garden Products -- nine vegetables and 15 fruits branded with popular cartoon characters.
When it comes to adults, Boyce says that the No. 1 reason she hears for people failing to meet guidelines is that they don't know how to prepare fruits and vegetables: The recipes page is the second most popular on the More Matters website. "If it doesn't come out of a box, people don't know what to do with it," Boyce says.
Survey respondents also indicate they worry about spoilage, and that eating fruit and vegetables is time-consuming and inconvenient. "How much more convenient can you get than a banana? You just peel it and eat it," Boyce says.
Some research indicates that the availability of fruits and vegetables at local stores or the distance to the nearest supermarket may affect consumption, especially in low-income urban areas. For example, one study published in 2007 found that among 102 households in New Orleans, fresh vegetable availability within 330 feet of a house was a predictor of vegetable intake. A national 2004 study of people on the Food Stamp Program showed a similar connection; those living more than five miles away from the nearest supermarket ate less fruit.
Cost is also a consideration for lower-income families. A study published in January of 555 families in St. Louis showed that parents who believed fruits and vegetables to be costly ate about one serving less per day than those who said cost wasn't a problem. But a 2004 analysis by the Department of Agriculture showed that, per serving, fruits and vegetables are actually less expensive than cheap snack foods such as candy bars.
For kids, however, the most consistent finding about what determines their fruits and vegetable consumption is at-home availability and ease of eating in the home, Baranowski says.
"If you had an apple on the counter, lots of people would pass it by. But if you cored it and pared it, the apple would go in seconds."