Is business trying to cheat the 5-a-day system of nutrition

We are about to see a major change in the way we think about food. The British health authorities are deciding whether or not to allow “composite” foods and processed food to be branded with the official 5-a-day logo. Is it time to face the uncomfortable truth: an apple that has been pureed or wrapped in pastry is not the same thing as an apple with a core?

The official logo can only be used on foods that are 100% fruit and vegetable. It hasn’t prevented manufacturers from creating their logos, claiming that many foods, such as tinned fruit jellies and spaghetti in tins can “count toward one of your five a day”.

The real thing… and some imposters. NHS/Josefine Stenudd/eltpics/David Foggo, CC BY

Public needs clarity and consistency in how the five-aday program is applied to different products. There is a delicate balance to be struck between lowering eligibility thresholds to encourage more retailers and manufacturers to use the official symbol, and endorsing items that generally move consumers away from “a healthy balanced diet”.

Public Health England, an executive branch of the Department of Health, is consulting an “external referee group” of manufacturers and non-governmental organizations. The group has been drafted with proposals that will be presented to them at a meeting scheduled for the 20th of February. These proposals include limits for the amount of fat, sugar, and salt that foods bearing the official logo can contain. Although these proposals may provide some protection, we still risk losing sight of what the 5-a-day campaign was intended to achieve.

Changes in choices

In the last 20 years, the food options available to UK consumers have drastically changed. The epidemiological data that supported the World Health Organisation’s original recommendation to consume 400g of fruits and vegetables each day (on which five portions of eighty grams were based) had been collected long before products like fruit wrappers or fruit smoothies existed.

When the public was not aware of the health benefits of fruits and vegetables, the original decision was made to include potatoes, fruit juices, dried fruit, or pulses. I was heavily involved with. The five-aday message, like many other public health guidelines, was determined by feasibility and acceptability. It also reflected the food environment and public health concerns in the 1990s.

Smoothie criminal? Antonio PicasciaCC BY

Manufacturers have made new products to encourage consumers to eat their five a day. They also draw attention to the products that contain fruit and vegetables. Do we get any closer to a healthy eating pattern with this? Does it matter that consumers can get their five from processed foods, which could theoretically include all products with the official logo if the proposal goes through? It’s important.

Diets high in fruits and vegetables have many benefits. These foods provide micronutrients as well as phytochemicals. They also have a positive effect on our diet by filling us up and replacing other foods.

The components of the plant are not guaranteed to produce the same effects whether they are consumed as purees, concentrates or whole plants. The majority of long-term data comes from research done before the proliferation of processed fruits and vegetables. It is well known that processing, whether commercially or in the home, improves digestibility by reducing plant cell walls. It increases the availability of and carcinogenic sugars, while lowering some vitamins. To suggest that tomato soup or pureed vegetables (without excessive fat, sugar or salt) should not count as fruit or vegetables would be perverse.

Tiering up

We are used to a two-tiered system in many areas of our life. We purchase designer and premium brands alongside value or convenience ranges. It’s time to be honest about the five-a day. All these processed foods can be counted (with the appropriate sugar/fat/salt caps), but if the food does not have the same form, shape or appearance as the fruit or vegetables it was derived, then it counts less.

You could even go as far as to say that you can only count one “processed fruit or vegetable” per day. The confusion over whether composite foods, like smoothies, which contain both fruit and vegetables in addition to multiple portions of processed produce, can be officially claimed as “two portions” would be resolved. It’s impossible to process anything. The damage would be limited if manufacturers refused to sign the new official logo and continued making questionable claims about composite foods.

Some commentators have said that fruit juice shouldn’t be counted and that the number should be raised to seven portions per day. Fruit juices are a significant source of sugar, especially for children.

The draft recommendations of the government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition propose a reduction of 50% in the average intake of free sugars. These sugars are not found in the cellular structure of food. They also recommend an increase of 50% in the information of dietary fiber. It is not hard to understand why the removal of juice is appealing, as the sugar in juice is free sugar, and the thread is removed. The processing of fruit to make purees or concentrates for composite foods also converts much of its sugar into free sugar and removes the dietary fiber. What would be the limit?

In fact, the study that was reported as stating that we needed seven portions of fruit and vegetables showed that more is better. Five portions were still better than 2. The study also showed that vegetables had a stronger effect than fruits. We need to emphasize the “at least” and also the importance of variety. By adapting the message, rather than changing the amount or the count, we can ensure consistency and avoid the perception that experts cannot agree on anything, so why bother?

We should return to “at least five a day” and eat whole fruits and vegetables. No matter how many different types of fruit and vegetables you consume, foods that are no longer the same form, shape or appearance as the original fruit or vegetable can only count towards one of your five-a day.

This message is in line with the common perception that processed fruits and vegetables are good, but not as good as real fruit and veggies. There is no equivalent between a carrot stick or apple on the way home (25p/5p) and a packet of fruit flakes.

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