How to eat well: Five-a-day still makes sense

By Ian Marber, August 16, 2012

Over the years there have been countless nutrition messages that health authorities have used to try to persuade us to eat a better diet. To my mind, the most successful has been the simple five-a-day message.

The slogan was initiated by a group of fruit and vegetable growers in the United States in 1991. Detractors dismiss it as being simply a marketing term, which it is, but in terms of health, it remains one of the most effective.

Research shows time and again that increasing intake of fruit and vegetables reduces the incidence of some forms of cancer and cardiovascular disease. For example, a European study published in 2010 found “a small inverse association was observed between intake of total fruits and vegetables and cancer risk”, yet critics suggest that the statistics aren’t significant enough to fully support the five-a-day mantra.

As fruits and vegetables contain fibre and are nutrient-dense, notably in antioxidants and minerals, there will inevitably be health benefits, but the value is just as much in what they replace in the diet as much what they include.

Instead of a packaged snack, chocolate, or even a “healthy” bar that contains oats and dried fruit but also fat and sugar, fresh produce contains only the good stuff. Eating it will satisfy hunger while supplying nutrients, flavour and enjoyment.

More recently, there has been derision over what qualifies as part of the five-a-day, highlighted by a McDonald’s fruit drink that contains a staggering 49g of sugar, and yet the fast-food chain can claim within the letter of the law that it counts as part of the five-a-day due to its 60 per cent juice content.

Here lies the problem — the message is a sound one, even if it acts only as an obvious reminder to eat more fruit and vegetables. But we must beware of food manufacturers trying to latch on to it. If a sugared drink, a ready meal or a fruit-flavoured dessert is making dubious claims, then avoid it and go for the real thing.

Ian Marber is one of the UK’s most highly regarded nutrition experts and the author of 11 books.

Last updated: 11:00am, September 27 2012