The World Health Organisation advised in 1990 that the minimum daily intake of fruit and vegetables should be 400 g a day, but note that this excludes consumption of potatoes and other starchy tubers. The aim was to prevent chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity, and to reduce several micronutrient deficiencies, especially in less developed countries. To promote the recommendations, WHO and FAO started a joint worldwide initiative in 2003.
But what exactly we should eat is not so easy. The definition of the word vegetable is somewhat arbitrary and subjective. All parts of herbaceous plants eaten as food by humans are normally considered vegetables. Mushrooms, actually belonging to the biological kingdom fungi, are also commonly considered vegetables. Potatoes and other starchy tubers are included in the definition of vegetables in some countries but not in others, which is not that helpful. Nuts, grains, herbs, spices and culinary fruits are normally not considered as vegetables. Botanically, fruits are reproductive organs, while vegetables are vegetative organs which sustain the plant. Nevertheless, several fruits, e.g. cucumbers and tomatoes, are also included in the term vegetables.
A formal definition of fruits and vegetables by the World Health Organisation might help:
Fruit and vegetables are edible plant foods excluding cereal grains, nuts, seeds, tea leaves, coffee beans, cocoa beans, herbs and spices.
Fruits are edible parts of plants that contain the seeds and pulpy surrounding tissue; have a sweet or tart taste; generally consumed as breakfast beverages, breakfast and lunch side-dishes, snacks or desserts.
Vegetables are edible plant parts including stems and stalks, roots, tubers, bulbs, leaves, flowers, and fruits; usually include seaweed and sweet corn; may or may not include pulses or mushrooms; generally consumed raw or cooked with a main dish, in a mixed dish, as an appetiser, or in a salad.
Are you with me so far?
Now some countries have attempted to translate this into portions to help your calculations.
In the United Kingdom the recommendation is to eat five fruit and vegetable portions a day with each portion equivalent to 80 g. However, only about 30% of the population manage to consume the recommended amount.
Australia went one step further and recommends two fruit and five to six vegetable portions a day with the fruit portion at 150 g and vegetable portion at 75 g. This equates to an enormous total of 675 to 750 g. Quite an ambitious target. Close to 50% of Australians reported that they usually ate two or more serves of fruit per day, while 8% usually ate five or more serves of vegetables per day. Taking both guidelines into account, only 5.5% of Australian adults had an adequate usual daily intake of fruit and vegetables.
Canada previously recommended five to ten portions for all, but changed this in 2007 to specific recommendations for each age and sex group. They now recommend a minimum of four portions for young children up to a minimum of eight portions for adult males. Only 26% of the population aged 2 years and older consumed the minimum number of daily servings recommended for their respective age–sex group.
France and Germany also recommend five portions a day while portion numbers vary in other European countries. The United States abandoned the numbers in favour of a generic fruit and vegetable campaign in 2007 indicating that the more you eat the better it is. In Europe, the average consumption of fruit and vegetables is only 220 g per person per day and just 27% of European mothers consume over 400 g. The French did not reach the recommended amounts consuming fruit only 1.3 times per day and vegetables 2.3 times per day despite all the talk about the beneficial Mediterranean diet. Still this was better than the Americans. Adults in the United States consume fruit about 1.1 times per day and vegetables about 1.6 times per day. That is definitely on the low side but not breaking any non-existent recommendations.
Given our notorious dishonesty when confronted by pollsters with questions that touch on our self-regard, there might even be a lot less five-a-day eaters than indicated above.
But if you are struggling with reaching the current recommendations just wait for it.
A new study, carried out by researchers at University College London, analysed information from more than 65,000 adults aged 35 years or older, who responded to the Health Survey for England. Researchers then followed up participants for an average of 7.7 years after their initial participation. The study found that people who ate seven or more portions of fruit or vegetables a day had a 33% reduced risk of death from any cause, a 25% reduced risk of death from cancer and a 31% reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease, compared with people who ate less than one portion per day.
So not even five portions of fruit and vegetables a day may, after all, be enough. There was a surprise finding – eating canned or frozen fruit actually may not be helpful at all. This is a little confusing but it could be that people eating canned fruit may not live in areas where there is fresh fruit in the shops, which could indicate a poorer diet. And merging canned and frozen fruit might not be fair to the frozen produce.
The clear finding was that eating more fresh fruit and vegetables, including salads, was linked to living a longer life generally and in particular, to a lower chance of death from heart disease, stroke and cancer. Vegetables seemed to be significantly more protection against disease than eating fruit.
The researchers commended the Australian example as the one to follow where the balance is two fruit and five vegetables. That is if the reduced risk of disease is entirely attributable to fruit and vegetable consumption, or they are acting as a marker of a broader dietary pattern associated with improved health.
Your call, but to up your fruit and vegetable consumption to close to 800 g a day might not be easy.