The idea that fruits and vegetables are “too pricey” is debunked again in a recent Center for Science in the Public Interest study.
As I write this, however, our office candy jar is rapidly being emptied of Starburst fruit-flavored candy, most of all by me. Why not produce as a collective snack?
First, some perspective on the effect of “price” on demand for fruits and vegetable; from my coverage of the issue this week:
Calling the perception that fruits and vegetables are pricey compared with other foods an “urban myth,” a new study says fruits and vegetables are bargains compared with processed food options.
The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest evaluated 20 popular and snack and 19 side dish items, half of which were fruits and vegetables.
The report found that the average price per serving of the fruit or vegetable snacks was $0.34, while the unhealthy packaged snacks cost about twice as much, $0.67.
For example, a half-cup serving of apple cost $0.26 but one Fruit by the Foot roll cost $0.45.
“Very few Americans are actually eating recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables—and most of us would do well to consume fewer packaged convenience foods and snacks, which are often higher in calories, salt, and sugars.” Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said in a news release.
Government guidelines recommend that the average person eat two cups of fruit and two and a half cups of vegetables a day (for a 2,000 calorie diet). Wootan said consumers can accomplish that economically, with recent estimates by the U.S. Department of Agriculture putting the daily cost to consumers between $2 and $2.50 per day.
The report found that healthy vegetable side dishes cost $0.27 per serving, while less healthy packaged side dishes cost $0.31 per serving.
The study is more evidence to disprove the notion that eating healthy foods is unaffordable, said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs for the Newark, Del-based Produce Marketing Association.
“PMA continues to battle that myth, armed with our own research, USDA’s findings, and this new information from CSPI,” she said in a Field to Fork blog post about the report.
The study also touted the low-calorie advantages of fruits and vegetables, noting that the calories per serving were 15 to 260 calories lower per serving than less healthy options.
In looking at the barriers to increased consumption of fruits and vegetables, the CSPI study noted that low calories may be considered a liability by some consumers, even though most Americans need to consume fewer calories. Bigger expenditures on marketing efforts for less healthy foods compared with fruits and vegetables may also put fruits and vegetables at a disadvantage.
“Marketing could give increased perception of value to produce and increase consumer familiarity with how to prepare and consume different types of fruits and vegetables,” the CSPI summary said.
It is interesting to observe that CSPI acknowledged that the “low calorie” label is not always seen as a plus for consumers. While fruits and vegetables are nutritionally dense, some consumers just want to get the most energy per dollar. That is why soft drink companies have been able to boost consumption of sugared pop in developing countries, inexorably creating future problems with obesity at the same time much of the population struggles with malnutrition.
As grown adults, we should be able to make more nuanced choices about the food we eat because we know better. Kale is better than a candy ring. Yet the appeal of the strawberry Starburst never seems to fade as quickly as the attraction of snow peas grows.
This recent study by the IFT revealed that children are even more driven by the appeal of sweet and salty foods.
From that story:
“Children’s decision making has few dimensions,” explained Dr. Adam Drewnowski (CQ), director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition and professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health, University of Washington, Seattle. Not surprisingly, children lean toward sweets like cookies, chocolate, fruits and juices as well as salty foods that make them feel full like French fries and pizza. But environment, peer groups, family, and exposure to a variety of menu items play a key role in children’s food choices.
“Kids are not as complicated as adults and are not making food choices based on health,” said Dr. Jennifer Orlet Fisher, an associate professor of public health at Temple University, Philadelphia. “Preference trumps all. Children eat what they like and leave the rest.”
In her studies, she found children like fat and sugar and somewhat surprisingly, fruit is at the top of the list of food choices, followed by starches, meat and eggs, dairy and vegetables. She said it’s not surprising kids like candy and cake over peas and carrots.
“Children do not naturally like healthy foods. They need to learn to like those healthy foods,” Fisher said. “They also like what they know.”
Repeat exposure creates a food familiarity that also drives food choices for children, which explains why many children repeatedly choose chicken nuggets and cheese, as she found in a study of preschoolers. Taste preferences are evident shortly after birth, with children preferring sweet and salty tastes first and rejecting bitter and sour tastes.
Fisher recommends diversifying diets in pregnant and nursing women since diets are determined “long before they taste their first bite of solid food.”
Parental behavior also drives healthy food choices that are available, accessible and familiar.
“When children are watching adults, they more quickly try new foods and accept new foods particularly when the adult is enthusiastic,” Fisher said. “What doesn’t work is pressuring kids to eat. And if you bribe kids with dessert, they will end up disliking the vegetables even more.”
Parents who also get their kids involved in food preparation and tasting, she said, provide a positive experience to promote acceptance of healthy foods.
While we wait for our nation’s collective common sense to gain the upper hand and reject the nutritional wasteland of super salty and super sweet food and gravitate toward healthful fruits and vegetables, I wonder if there are stopgap measures available. For example, we could parlay the Starburst effect into the fresh produce department.
Like apples immersed in grape flavoring, why not brand veggies like carrots with the Starburst label and infuse with them cherry or strawberry flavor? If the end (increased consumption of fresh produce by kids) justifies the means (wacky food science), then it may be time to turn the curse of Starburst into a blessing.