ORLANDO, Fla. — There’s never been a better time to highlight the inherent health benefits of fresh produce in marketing strategies because the idea that food is medicine is becoming a mainstream belief, and the science keeps backing it up.
“In some cases, you can reverse illness. We can reverse type 2 diabetes exclusively with diet,” said James Hébert, professor of epidemiology and director of the cancer prevention and control program at the University of South Carolina.
Hébert was one of three panelists at the Healing Benefits of Produce educational session at Southeast Produce Association’s Southern Exposure on March 8.
Even so, consumers won’t be convinced to eat more fruits and vegetables by the possibility of preventing a future illness that they don’t have yet, Hébert said.
“You can’t sell deferred health benefits. It’s just impossible,” he said. “Selling the absence of something bad happening in the future is bloody impossible.”
There is a short-term benefit, as a February Science Direct study showed, said Lee O’Donnell, corporate manager of prevention and wellness at Orlando Health, which runs a network of hospitals.
“If you’re eating healthy, you feel better about yourself, right off,” O’Donnell said. “But there was a study that showed people who went from eating zero fruits and vegetables a day to eating eight a day, their rise in mood was similar in change to someone who goes from being unemployed to employed.”
Promotional campaigns using emotion to educate consumers on the instant gratification of healthy food can inspire them to make healthier choices.
Typically, customers eat badly in response to stress, said Jennifer Patzkowsky, Publix Super Markets corporate dietitian.
“Sometimes we just need a hug, not a Snickers bar,” Patzkowsky said. “I know we sell fried chicken and cake, and those are delicious. But maybe sometimes you can have a salad for lunch instead. You have to look at the whole, overall pattern.”
Publix is trying to make it easier for consumers to make these choices with teal-colored markers to indicate organic food across the store, and signs for carb-smart, gluten-free and heart-healthy products. Some locations have an in-store dietitian. Publix’s popular offering of a free bakery cookie for any child has expanded to a fresh fruit offering as well.
Grocery stores are stocking more fresh-cut vegetables and fruit, including noodle and riced vegetables, to meet customers’ desires for both convenience and health.
Hospitals are a big institutional foodservice boon in which it would seem obvious to have fresh produce served in the cafeterias and delivered to patients, but it’s not always been that way, O’Donnell said.
Orlando Regional Medical Center went from spending $16,000 a week on fresh produce in fiscal year 2017 to $25,000 a week in FY 2018, she said.
Produce growers, marketers, foodservice operators and retailers can spread a simple message.
“Just eat unprocessed. Just stick to the basics. The closer it is to the source — the tree, the soil — the better it is for you,” O’Donnell said.