Some of the worlds
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.
fruit and vegetable consumption is a major public health challenge at the moment,
says Kraisid Tontisirin, Director of FAOs 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 bodys 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 bodys 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 FAOs Nutrition Programmes
Service. This is one of the main messages in FAOs 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
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 worlds 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 FAOs 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
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.
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.
FAO Media Office
(+39) 06 570 53625