So we know that vegetables are good for us but the consumption in the UK has been decreasing over the last 20 years of the 5 a day campaign.
The proportion of people in the UK with obesity now stands around a third but we have low vitamin D status, consume too little fibre and have low iron, folate and selenium levels in certain groups of the population.
Clearly, eating more food hasn’t been working for us. We are not just getting bigger but the quality of our health is reducing, mainly due to the nutritional quality of our diet, amongst other factors.
Vegetables do hold the key to this problem and using the right approach that fits in with increased personalisation of food, convenience, plant based trends and wellness an improvement in the nutritional quality of the UK diet can be achieved.
I saw in Shanghai and in South Korea that vegetables are plentiful and cheap. Food is often consumed outside of the home although there are also dishes of limited nutritional benefit.
Bucket sized instant noodles in Shanghai and Chi-maek (Chicken and beer) in South Korea spring to mind.
The fast food is generally composed of rice or noodles with a meat and vegetable accompaniment.
Food can easily be bought through e-commerce channels and especially in Shanghai, prepared meal components can be delivered home within an hour of ordering. These increased efficient ways of shopping reduce the time spent on meal preparation but allow the same types of food to be consumed.
Western style outlets exist such as MacDonald’s and Starbucks but rather than being a daily habit, they are frequented more as a treat.
The food guides for both of these countries specify the quantities and types of vegetables that people are supposed to eat.
The dietary survey carried out in South Korea shows that levels of micronutrients consumed is generally acceptable with the exception of calcium which is slightly below optimum. The Koreans have different dietary issues and bio-fortification of vegetables there is not a consideration due to the high consumption of variety of volume of vegetables, however, reduction of salt in foods is an issue.
The Australasian neighbours have similar dietary patterns and issues to the UK.
Vegetable consumption is not great and in NZ the 5 + A Day message is recognised by 80% of the population but consumption is not actually increasing.
The NZ Plant & Food health does work on improving the nutritional density of food through products such as Vital Vegetables and the green kiwi. A joint project with the Australians the Vital Vegetables range was created with a focus on products that could deliver a substantiated health claim such as bone health, eye health, immunity etc.
Using a team including researchers, nutritionists, growers, retailers and the manufacturing and marketing company the result is a range of bagged salads and slaws which look both colourful and attractive. The green kiwi has been promoted for its digestive health benefits and the marketing around this includes the health claim but additional softer messaging about great quality of life. Zespri has proprietary use of the claim.
Another collaboration which has worked well is that of the Ministry of Health, chip oil manufacturers, food service providers and Potatoes NZ. Consumption of fried chips in the country is high and one of the main sources of fat and salt in the diet. Realising that it would not be successful in telling the population to eat fewer chips, the Ministry of Health looked at a chip nutrition project with Potatoes NZ to improve chip quality and reduce the amount of oil and salt through training the food service staff. All the stakeholders supported the measure and the small changes that the cooks have been able to make around choice of oil, cooking temperature, portion size etc are now resulting in a reduction of fat and salt in the national diet.
Mushrooms are a crop which deliver a range of vitamins but the NZ consumer doesn’t necessarily know how to cook them. In order to get consumers to pick them up, Meadow Mushrooms looked at the barriers to purchase and then categorised their range to fit with popular menus. For example button mushrooms for pasta, Portabello mushrooms for burgers and additional themed menus based on recipes from other countries. The nutritional information is still present but on the packaging it is shown as an info-bite rather than a health claim which doesn’t particularly speak to an individual consumer need.
Te Mata mushrooms take a different approach and treat their mushrooms with a shot of UV light to enhance the vitamin D levels. Labelling is focused on the health claim and the supermarket sells the product at a higher price to differentiate them from the standard product.
The Ministry of Primary Agriculture launched the latest labelling regulations in 2016 and had the advantage of being able to look at the EFSA documentation and improve on it for the Australian and NZ fresh produce growers. The result is a list of pre-approved claims which lend themselves to fruit and vegetables, a proprietary system which enables people who have done their own research to have exclusivity on a claim and a self-certification system avoiding submission in advance if a standard claim is being used.
New Zealand has a range of initiatives, a regulatory support system and a collaborative way of working across research, crop production, manufacture and marketing that enables the fresh produce industry to promote the nutritional quality of the crops, despite limited finances.
Whilst vegetable consumption may not be increasing, there are small steps being made in the right direction.