Could 10 be the new five when it comes to daily fresh fruit and vegetable consumption? Or are our heads in the clouds? We talk to those on the consumer frontline about how to win our favourite numbers game
Fruit and veg has never been so cool. Flick through any foodie mag or take a look at independent restaurant menus, as well as some mainstream, and you’ll see greens are on trend and fruit is the ultimate indulgence. But is this a clear picture? How many consumers in the UK are actually settling down to cauliflower cous cous or downing a kale smoothie on their way to work? Unfortunately, the reality is it’s probably not that many.
About this time last year [March 2014] University College London published research that hailed 10 fruit and vegetables a day as the way forward for health. It grabbed a few national headlines, but then disappeared as quickly as many research projects of this nature do.
The 12-year study examined the eating habits of 65,000 people in England between 2001 and 2013 and found eating large quantities of fruit and vegetables significantly lowered the risk of premature death. People who ate at least seven portions of fruit and vegetables each day were 42% less likely to die from any cause.
Foodservice provider Fresh Direct’s development chef, Duncan Parsonage was enthused by the study, but admits getting everyday people to that level of consumption comes with its own challenges.
“Eating 10 portions of fresh produce a day is completely achievable, but you have to make a conscious effort to ‘want’ to do it,” he says. “People that consume more vegetables are more likely to have a healthier and longer life. But, although cauliflower, kale and even Brussels sprouts are having a great time in the popularity stakes, sadly many of the national [restaurant] groups still feature protein as centre of plate, but this trend has started to shift in the last couple of years.”
The nature of these studies can be a turnoff for some consumers, says Mode Media's UK food editor, Charlotte Jones, who heads up the food section on uk.glam.com, which gets 400 million hits a month.
“Percentage reductions like this are headline grabbing,” she points out. “There appears to be an inverse relationship between the risk of death and fruit and vegetable consumption but, as no other factors in the participants' lives are controlled, there could be any number of factors playing a part. Fruit and vegetables are fairly expensive and quick spoilage can be off putting, so from a budget point of view that can be difficult to achieve, and 10 portions a day is quite a lot of food.”
With chilled and frozen ready meals still representing a multi-billion pound sector, the fresh produce industry is working against a nation that remains largely uneducated in the value of fresh fruit and vegetables.
“If people are not informed and do not enjoy their first experience when they do experiment with a fruit or vegetable, they will not buy it again,” says Jones, who has noticed that her readers seem to lust over food they consider a “naughty treat”, with a toffee apple garnering the most hits of all recent recipes.
“If consumers were more aware of what was in season and locally sourced, and the subsequent benefits to flavour, they may have a more positive view or association with fruits and vegetables. If meat and wine can have serving suggestions, with visible calls to action across shelves, then something similar could be done for the fruit and vegetable aisles. There's a lot of potential for improving packaging, for example,” she says.
Chefs following in the footsteps of fresh produce enthusiasts like Yotam Ottolenghi, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver, include Gareth Crosby, executive chef at new seasonally-led restaurant Pedler Peckham, who is making some headway in converting consumers.
Crosby agrees people will eat whatever they want, but believes chefs have a big role to play in guiding consumer eating choices. “Our menu consists of roughly 40% vegetable dishes and I’m always on the phone to suppliers trying to get seasonal produce from the UK where possible, or from wherever has the best quality,” he says. “I like to mix sweet with savoury in a lot of dishes, so you often see a good mix of fruits on main dishes too.”
Pedler Peckham, which serves more than 70 covers a night and caters for breakfast and lunch at weekends, sees vegetable dishes outsell its meat and fish dishes. “I try to make them as exciting, colourful and seasonal as possible, so you get the most from the taste and the nutrients,” says Crosby, whose most popular dish is charred cauliflower with pomegranate and saffron aioli. “The colours in this dish look great, with the char on the cauliflower against the red seed and mayo. When this one goes through the restaurant, everyone orders it.”
Parsonage agrees eating a ‘rainbow’ of fresh fruits and veggies is “bang on the money”. “Although fruit is packed with valuable nutrients, it still contains sugar and consuming too much is not great,” points out the chef, who advises multiple national restaurant chains, as part of his role with Fresh Direct.
“Coupled with rising meat and fish prices, providers are being challenged to reduce protein portion sizes, so potentially vegetables have a unique position. With more celebrity chefs and restaurants promoting the use of a range of fresh vegetables and fruits, it certainly aids awareness but, with decreasing kitchen skills, delivering a perfectly-balanced, veggie-friendly meal is somewhat of an art form.”
It seems the hard work of chefs and veggie-eager journalists may stay within the top of the ABC1 demographic, unless further encouragement – in the form of consumer education – comes from the people-in-the-know, like growers and suppliers.
Jones feels the personal approach is one way of winning the nation’s hearts. The most popular vegetable recipe on uk.glam.com is a summer recipe for broad beans and she believes it appeals because of the story behind it.
“People love a personal touch and accompanying this recipe is not one but two stories,” she explains. “Firstly, my childhood memories of shelling broad beans with my mother and grandfather, and, secondly, memories of a solo trip I took to Barcelona, as the recipe is influenced by many Catalan flavours. Things have certainly evolved from the days of websites with endless listings of basic recipes. People want more.”
How to get more veg on the menu – Duncan Parsonage's tips for chefs
Menu wording is very important – make it sound appealing to the most hardened carnivore.
Think about textures on the plate – combine a silky smooth purée with the crunch of a crumbed cauliflower floret or a pickled element to balance things out and you’re well on the way to a great dish.
Don’t make meat-free dishes too virtuous – there is a temptation to lump all of the requirements into one dish, like meat free, gluten free, low fat, low salt… Make it indulgent!
Chargrill or roast it – adding more flavour and caramelising the finished ingredient.
Offer green juices or veg juices – this is great as a grab-and-go option, but equally good to offer as a meal accompaniment or appetiser.
Follow the seasons – use in-season produce that’s simply presented and thoughtfully accompanied with a couple of great ingredients. For example, in-season asparagus, egg and crumbled cheese, or rhubarb with clotted cream and smashed shortbread biscuits.
How to get your fruit and veg noticed
Start talking: It doesn’t matter where you are in the supply chain, you have a story to tell; get on Twitter or start a blog and tell the world how great your product is in a personal way.
Influence others: Whether your customer is the end consumer, a chef, marketer or grocery store, think about what makes their life easier to get the fruit and veg message across. Supply nutrition facts, cooking tips or preparation details – whatever it takes to get more fresh produce on the plate.
Be accessible: Make sure your customers and consumers know you exist and are the expert, so you are indispensable.