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by Paula Kurtzweil
Are you taking the 5 A Day challenge? You may be if you find yourself:
The challenge, offered by the National Cancer Institute--a branch of the National Institutes of Health--is to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, and these are some ways consumers are rising to the occasion.
They're taking advantage of the healthful benefits of fruits and vegetables. Studies by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the National Academy of Sciences suggest that the nutritional goodness of fruits and vegetables, with a diet that is low in fat, saturated fat and cholesterol and that contains plenty of whole-grain breads and cereals, may decrease the risk of heart disease and cancer.
Fruits' and vegetables' potential to help improve the health of Americans led NCI to begin a multi-year public education campaign in 1992. Its goal is to increase consumers' awareness of the importance of fruits and vegetables and to give consumers ideas on how they can increase their intake. With its partner, the Produce for Better Health (PBH) Foundation--a nonprofit consumer education foundation funded by the produce industry--NCI has taken the "5 A Day for Better Health" message to grocery stores, classrooms, television, work sites, churches, and elsewhere.
Food labeling of fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables may carry the message, too. And if you need more specific nutrition information about a particular item, you can find it in the labeling of most products, as well. The Food and Drug Administration regulates this information, which corresponds to NCI's Five A Day guidance and the government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
A 1991 NCI and PBH survey, which has the best available, most up-to-date information on consumers' consumption of fruits and vegetables, found that the average American consumer eats only about three servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Forty-two percent eat less than two servings a day. Compare those figures with the five to nine servings a day recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and you can see that many of us have a way to go.
A major reason to eat more fruits and vegetables is their nutritiousness. Unless baked in a pie or dripping in butter, most are low in fat and calories--except avocados, coconut and olives, all of which contain fat naturally. Many are excellent sources of the important vitamins A and C and provide ample fiber.
In addition, many fruits and vegetables, particularly dried beans and peas, are significant sources of folate, a B vitamin that can help reduce the risk of certain serious and common birth defects.
Produce has other positive qualities. Many items, such as raisins, grapes, cherry tomatoes, and bananas, can be eaten on the spot, with minimal preparation. (Fresh produce, especially produce in which the peel will be eaten should be washed with water beforehand to remove any surface dirt and bacteria.) NCI campaign literature refers to fruits and vegetables as the "original fast food."
"They're easy to pick up and eat," said Daria Chapelsky, state coordinator for NCI's 5 A Day Program. "Just as easy as picking up fast food."
And, unlike other types of foods (such as those high in fat that many of us eat too much of), plain fruits and vegetables are items we don't need to restrict. Genda Potter, a registered dietitian for cardiac patients at Memorial Medical Center in Springfield, Ill., said that factor was a major reason she began a regular 5 A Day class for outpatients.
"I wanted to emphasize something positive," she said. "People often look on dietitians as people 'out-to-ruin-my-enjoyment-of-food.' But fruits and vegetables are foods they can add to their diet rather than something they're going to be told to take away."
Still, for any number of reasons, consumers often find it difficult to eat more fruits and vegetables. They may avoid them because they believe they are too expensive or take too long to prepare. These and other perceived problems became evident to NCI in 1991, when it asked members of small group studies to come up with reasons people may not want to or might be unable to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
Their responses led NCI to develop ideas to help consumers overcome reported difficulties in meeting the 5 A Day goal. Some of those ideas follow, along with other information from nutritionists and food safety experts to help consumers overcome any reluctance they may have to eating fruits and vegetables.
Perceived Problem: Fruits and vegetables cost too much.
It may help to realize, according to dietitians, that fruits and vegetables are actually good buys, if you consider that they are nutrient-dense, containing many of the vitamins and minerals we need more of--for example, vitamins A and C. But the foods we often buy in place of them--cookies and chips, for example--usually offer more of the nutrients--fat and sodium, for example--that most of us should eat less of.
And there are ways to reduce the costs of fruits and vegetables even further:
Perceived Problem: Fruits and vegetables take too long to prepare.
Perceived Problem: Fresh fruits and vegetables spoil too quickly.
Perceived Problem: Fruits and vegetables contain harmful pesticides.
It is a fact that pesticides are used in the production of most fruits and vegetables sold in this country. They help protect crops from insects, diseases, weeds, and mold, thus helping to increase crop yield. "They allow for production of a plentiful and affordable food supply," said John Jones, Ph.D., in FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
"They are not contaminants. They are substances applied intentionally for a specific purpose and therefore are subject to very rigorous regulatory control," he said. "A new pesticide law enacted in 1996 puts even tighter controls on the use of pesticides."
Several federal agencies share responsibility for pesticide oversight. The Environmental Protection Agency registers pesticides for food use and sets tolerance levels--the upper permitted limit for pesticide residues in individual foods. FDA enforces these limits for all foods except meat and poultry, which fall under USDA's jurisdiction.
FDA collects and analyzes almost 10,000 samples of fruits and vegetables yearly for pesticide residues. Since 1987, when the agency began reporting the results of its monitoring program annually, more than 99 percent of domestic fruit and vegetable samples and more than 95 percent of imported samples have been found free of illegal pesticide residues or had low-level residues that fell within established tolerances. Violations mainly occurred because low-level pesticide residues not approved for a particular product were identified in that food. However, most of the pesticides causing these violations were approved for use on many other foods, Jones said.
"Most violations are not due to the presence of banned pesticides, such as DDT, chlordane and heptachlor, or to very high levels of residues," he said. "Most are due to very low-level residues on the wrong commodity."
So, FDA's position is that the U.S. fruit and vegetable supply does not contain excessive pesticide residues and that the benefits of eating fresh produce far exceeds any risk from residues, Jones said.
However, if you're still concerned, here are some steps you can take to reduce your risk further:
For the most part, any fruit or vegetable will do in helping consumers reach their 5 A Day goal. But certain types of fruits and vegetables should be selected regularly because of their nutritional value. These include those that are good sources of vitamins A and C and fiber.
Variety also is important because fruits and vegetables provide other nutrients, such as folate, potassium, calcium, and iron. Varying choices increases the likelihood of getting all the nutritional advantages of fruits and vegetables.
Also, nutrition experts advise against replacing all fruits and vegetables in the diet with dietary supplements because supplements often do not contain all the known--and perhaps unknown--nutritional benefits of fruits and vegetables.
Preparation presents another nutritional concern. Since a reduced-fat, reduced-saturated-fat intake is important to a healthful diet, it's important not to overindulge in fruits and vegetables prepared with high-fat ingredients. Some dishes to look out for include fried vegetables, such as french fries; cooked vegetables in cheese or cream sauces or with added bacon or butter; fruit pies or fruit served with whipped cream; and dips for raw vegetables. Some of these high-fat foods now have reduced-fat versions, such as low-fat dips and whipped toppings.
You can determine the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables by looking at the Nutrition Facts panel on the side or back of labels of frozen and canned items. Nutrition information also is available for many fresh items, under FDA's voluntary point-of-purchase nutrition information program for raw foods. This information may appear on the labels of packaged fresh fruits and vegetables or on posters or brochures at or near the point of purchase.
The nutrition information lists the kinds and amounts of important nutrients in a serving of the fruit or vegetable and gives the Percent Daily Value, which shows how much those amounts contribute to the daily diet.
Some information is required: for example, the amount of fat, fiber, vitamins A and C, and iron and calcium, even if there is none. Some labels will carry additional information, such as the amount of folic acid and iron, depending on the types of label claims made.
You can quickly find fruits and vegetables that provide the nutrients you're looking for--for example, vitamin A or C or both--by looking for short descriptive terms on the front, side or back of the food label. For example, an orange juice label may say "provides 100 percent of the Daily Value for vitamin C." A package of frozen broccoli may state "good source of fiber." These claims refer to the contents of one serving of the item.
Less frequently, you may see longer claims describing the relationship between the labeled food or one or more nutrients in the food to a certain disease or medical condition. Only claims approved by FDA can be used in food labeling. Three approved health claims pertain to fruits and vegetables. These claims can describe how:
In addition, in spring 1996, FDA approved a claim stating that a diet with adequate folic acid may reduce the risk of certain birth defects. This claim might appear, for example, on labels of dried beans, brussels sprouts, asparagus, tomato juice, and orange juice--foods that are excellent or good sources of folate.
Are consumers paying attention to all this information?
In a way, yes, according to a 1996 NCI/PBH survey. That survey found that the percentage of consumers who were aware of the need to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day rose from 8 percent in 1991 to 39 percent in 1997.
The information may be helping to increase Americans' consumption of fruits and vegetables remains, too. According to NCI estimates, the average adult's intake of fruits and vegetables rose from 3.9 servings in 1989-1991 to about 4.5 in 1994.
Meanwhile, NCI, the produce industry, state health departments, and other groups will continue the 5 A Day campaign through at least the year 2000. Said Stables, "This is the largest national public-private nutrition education program ever launched."Paula Kurtzweil is a member of FDA's public affairs staff.
Here's what the National Cancer Institute recommends as a serving of fruit and vegetables:
In selecting your daily intake of fruits and vegetables, the National Cancer Institute recommends choosing: