As interest in nutrition has grown over the past two decades, produce marketers have strategized to promote specific wellness elements of various fruits and vegetables. ( Photo: Farm Journal )

Not many fresh produce messages could match the eye-catching splendor of Ms. Chiquita’s fruit-laden hat of the 1960s or tap into the fitness craze days of the 1970s-80s, but “wellness” struck a chord in the 1990s. More than just mouthwatering morsels, food became one of the mechanisms for maintaining good health. 

Counting for a Cause

“5 a Day for Better Health” made its mark, helping to take the guesswork out of healthy eating by providing a targeted number to shoot for—at least five fruits and veggies daily. Because the Produce for Better Health Foundation—founded 1991—was rooted in science and consumer research, this measurable message drove home the scientific facts.

As the years went by, specific number recommendations faded in favor of “Fruits and Vegetables: More Matters” and “Pass the Plate” themes. These initiatives promoted an actionable approach, driving home the idea that eating a variety of fruits and vegetables shaped a more diverse (and presumably healthier) diet. 

What was missing? A tie to how shoppers feel. “What we found, particularly with the next generation with millennials and Gen Z, is that they were looking for a less prescriptive approach,” says Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, PBH’s president and CEO. The foundation’s newest campaign, launched in 2019—“Have a Plant”—evokes a feeling, more in the context of a movement, that fulfills the desire that many millennials and Gen Z consumers have to align their food choices with their values, she says.

The produce industry has been innovative in driving nutrition messages forward over the past generation, says Taylor Wallace, PBH’s acting chief food and nutrition scientist and a professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. In the 1990s, it was baby carrots—peeled, washed, and ready to eat—that revolutionized that commodity. Today items like cauliflower—touted these days as a carbohydrate alternative for use in things like pizza crust, for example—are being showcased. “Riced cauliflower is a modern-day example of those innovations,” he notes.

Over the past 25 years, PBH and other outlets have successfully proven that fresh produce can benefit consumers’ health. Shoppers have internalized well-publicized messages about various commodities like “blueberries are good for heart health” or “avocados have healthy fats.”

In fact, programs at hospitals in both Boston and San Francisco have well-established initiatives that incorporate food as part of medical treatment or prevention as an alternative to—or addition to—medication. 

Produce Impacts Health Issues

Earlier this year, Wallace and a team of scientists sorted through findings of nearly 100 studies to gather data about specifically how fresh produce can affect various health issues from cardiovascular disease to cancer, eye conditions, infections and more. 

“Increasing fruit and vegetable intake not only helps to ward off chronic disease, but also extends both life expectancy and quality,” Wallace said in the report. 

Fresh fruits and vegetables have always maintained high ground because they are generally low in calories and very high in nutrient content, Wallace says. But these new findings open the door for fresh produce marketers to extend their message (and marketing opportunities). “This review found, in all this data out there, that people consuming fruits and vegetables long term live longer, healthier lives,” Wallace says. 

Moving Into the Digital Age

Colorful banners and point-of-sale posters were the “high-impact” message formats 25 years ago. Today’s equivalent showcases splashy photos on Instagram and short tweets on Twitter. PBH has evolved with the times, providing a digital platform that’s ready-made for the produce industry.

“The reason we need PBH today is less about telling consumers how many servings to eat and more about creating an authentic and credible third-party voice for the fruit and vegetable industry in order to establish, enhance, and maintain consumer trust,” Reinhardt Kapsak says.

The message that was once “eat fruits and vegetables” is now “eat fresh fruits and vegetables and share information digitally about fruits and vegetables,” she notes. 

The foundation’s role in this new generation is significant, essentially leveling the playing field in terms of marketing fruits and vegetables, as any company today can use digital marketing to send messages about health to “influencers” and consumers. PBH has more than a million social media followers and boasts an “influencer network”—retail and foodservice dietitians, food bloggers, nutrition consultants, prominent registered dietitians and others—who make up another million followers that she calls “ambassadors in action.”

“PBH is an influencer in our own right, but with our elite expert network, we just increased your message with more than 2 million (followers),” she says, noting that PBH has invested more than $1 million in the evolving digital ecosystem. 

What’s perhaps the most essential component of the digital age? The fruit and vegetable industry needs to be proactive in telling their stories. The next generation of consumers is seeking an “authentic” presence online, Reinhardt Kapsak says. Consumers want to know where their food comes from and to engage with authentic people and companies. “It’s important to understand, it’s not just about marketing produce digitally. It’s about telling your story so that when a crisis occurs you have some level of trust [already established]—a trusted relationship with consumers—whether it’s through your brand or through PBH,” she says. 

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