Some of the world’s most widespread and debilitating nutritional disorders, including birth defects, mental and physical retardation, weakened immune systems, blindness, and even death, are caused by diets lacking in vitamins and minerals (commonly referred to as “micronutrients”). Low fruit and vegetable intake is a major contributing factor to such micronutrient deficiencies.

Encouraging people to eat more fruits and vegetables is therefore often at the top of nutrition educators’ to-do list. Still, most populations are not consuming nearly enough, according to the FAO/WHO Expert Report on Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases, released earlier this year.

While research shows nine or ten servings of fruits and vegetables a day is optimal, dietary guidelines tend to recommend a minimum of five servings a day. [See related article, “What is a serving?”] Yet studies show that most populations are consistently not reaching even half this goal.

This is particularly troubling given the surge of new science suggesting that fruits and vegetables can not only help prevent nutrient deficiency disorders, but also reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases — another leading cause of morbidity and mortality around the globe — and many cancers.

The rise of such non-communicable diseases in both wealthy nations and poorer countries is partly due to declining physical activity and excessive food energy intake. But WHO attributes approximately 3 million deaths a year from such diseases to inadequate fruit and vegetable intake — a risk factor almost as deadly as tobacco use or unsafe sex.

“Increasing fruit and vegetable consumption is a major public health challenge at the moment,” says Kraisid Tontisirin, Director of FAO’s Food and Nutrition Division.

There are various reasons why different populations tend to shy away from fruits and vegetables — cost, convenience, taste and stigma, to name a few. But as science increasingly supports the need for people to consume more produce, national health agencies, industry representatives and international organizations, including FAO, are working together to address these obstacles and discuss ways to boost fruit and vegetable consumption around the globe.

Why are fruits and vegetables so indispensable?

For starters, they are full of vitamins and minerals, which serve an array of important functions in the body: Vitamin A, for instance, maintains eye health and boosts the body’s immunity to infectious diseases; potassium promotes proper nerve and muscle functioning; and B-vitamins are necessary for converting food into energy. (Folate, one of the most common B-vitamins found in produce, can also significantly reduce the risk of neural tube birth defects in newborns and contribute to the prevention of heart disease.)

Other micronutrients in fruits and vegetables, such as vitamin C and vitamin E, serve as powerful antioxidants that can protect cells from cancer-causing agents; vitamin C, in particular, can increase the body’s absorption of calcium — an essential mineral for strong bones and teeth — and iron from other foods. (Low iron levels can lead to anaemia, one of the most severe nutrition-related disorders, affecting about 2 billion people worldwide.)

Many fruits and vegetables are also very high in dietary fibre, which can help move potentially harmful substances through the intestinal tract and lower blood cholesterol levels.

Much of fruits and vegetables’ potency is believed to also come from substances known as “phytochemicals”. These unique compounds are naturally produced by plants to protect themselves against viruses, bacteria and fungi.

Over the last decade, scientists have begun to isolate hundreds of these compounds and discover their wide-ranging health benefits. But the exact mechanisms by which phytochemicals promote health is still unclear. Scientists suspect it may be due to their individual effects and their interaction with one another, both within the same food and with phytochemicals found in other fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains, nuts and legumes. Nutrients from other types of foods may also be an important piece of the puzzle, since some vitamins and minerals — and certain phytochemicals — are known to depend upon other nutrients for their absorption and use.

“The best advice is to eat a wide variety of foods,” says William D. Clay, Chief of FAO’s Nutrition Programmes Service. This is one of the main messages in FAO’s “Get the best from your food” campaign, a public information initiative aimed at promoting appropriate diets and healthy lifestyles. “Eating an abundance of fruits and vegetables within the context of a diverse diet will help ensure you are meeting your nutritional needs,” says Clay. [See related article, “Colour is the key.”]

A challenge — and an opportunity — for agriculture

As difficult as it may be to get people to heed a simple message like “Eat more fruits and vegetables”, the real challenge may lay before the world’s food supply and distribution systems. FAO is playing its part to make sure agriculture, particularly in the developing world, can help meet the demand for healthy foods.

“One of the main objectives is to make sure the safety and health of foods is not compromised by increasing production levels,” says Alison Hodder, an agricultural officer in FAO’s Plant Production and Protection Division.

FAO encourages farmers to follow good agricultural practices, and is working with different partners to develop a general framework for food production systems that are both economically and environmentally sustainable.

Since the harvest period for many fruits and vegetables can be limited, FAO also provides information on the best methods for preserving produce (for example, drying, chemical processing and heat treatments) while retaining the maximum amount of nutrients.

Another goal of the Organization is to improve people's access to fruits and vegetables. In rural areas, FAO strives to integrate gardening messages with nutrition information, encouraging local communities to grow and consume a variety of crops. In urban areas, FAO has launched the “Food for the cities” initiative, a programme designed to link production with transportation, storage and marketing strategies, and address such critical issues as urban poverty and food costs.

As public awareness campaigns about the benefits of fruits and vegetables continue to develop, producers may have a unique occasion to increase their production and enter new markets.

“The key is to utilize techniques like crop programming, which help growers schedule fruit and vegetable production throughout the year,” says Hodder. “Agriculture can expand to meet consumers’ increasing needs as long as growers can learn to anticipate them.”

October 2003

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