Let's be positive about boosting fresh produce consumption, says Dutch expert

Lets be positive

Dr. Peppelenbos
Dr Herman Peppelenbos

During a thought-provoking presentation at the recent Amsterdam Produce Show, Wageningen University’s Herman Peppelenbos talked about an optimistic vision for the fresh produce industry. Not least when it comes to increasing levels of consumption. Produce Business UK was there to find out more. 

The battle to increase fresh produce consumption is as old as time itself. Well, certainly as old as the first grower that stumbled upon the manifold benefits of fruit and vegetables. It’s a battle that all in the industry are familiar with, and one that goes to the very core of the sector.

Increased consumption means increased sales, means increased profits. A win-win-win in marketing parlance. But of course it’s not as simple as that. If only it were. 

And it was this battle that formed the backdrop of Herman Peppelenbos’ bold presentation at the recent Amsterdam Produce Show. Peppelenbos is the programme manager customised food at Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands and his seminar was packed with plain speaking and an optimistic, can-do, attitude that shaped the title of his presentation: The glass half full approach to low fresh produce consumption.

Of course he acknowledged how we all know that we should eat more fresh produce, but it’s a message that has to be continually reinforced.

“Sometimes people ask why such a stress on health?” he said. “We’re living longer so why the stress on eating more fruit and vegetables?”

His answer was simple. Yes, we might be living longer, but we’re becoming unwell earlier in life. The expected number of years we’re living from birth before succumbing to a chronic disease is down from 55 and 54 for men and women respectively in 1981 to 48 and 41 in 2012. This has notable implications for health care - particularly the cost.

While some notable explanations for societal ill-health remain entrenched - smoking remains the biggest risk, followed by high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity - a lack of fresh produce in a diet is the fifth biggest risk, ahead of lack of exercise and alcohol.

“So fruit and vegetable consumption is important. The literature is increasing. Direct links between consumption and cardiovascular disease are being made. Fruit consumption can cut cardiovascular disease by 40 percent.”

Peppelenbos pointed to how a Mediterranean diet is linked to lower heart attacks, how the nutrients found in broccoli can help cut risk to certain cancers and a diet high in leafy green vegetables may slow cognitive decline in elderly.

Why, he asked the audience. Again, his explanation was simple:

1) Because of what’s not in it - salt, sugar, fat
2) Rich in fibres, often lacking in our diet
3) Rich in vitamins
4) Rich in minerals
5) All natural
He also pointed to the increasing research around compounds present in fresh produce, noting a number of buzzwords from flavournoids, glucosinolates and lycopene to lutein-zeaxanthine, sulfurophane and anthocyane.

Clearly then, everyone in the industry, up and down the supply chain, should be pushing the advantages of a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables. But, Peppelenbos noted how some reports in the media claimed that the nutritional value of our fruit and veg might be declining. It’s claimed that compared to 50 years ago concentrations are lower in current crops. 

So do we have a problem? Peppelenbos, typically, remains sanguine. “It [the reports] could be right. Maybe we do have a problem. Likewise, maybe it’s not right. Maybe they used a different method to record the concentration. Maybe there was a difference in the cultivars. Maybe they used different cultivation method. Maybe the post-harvest treatment (storage, packaging and transport) was different. These are all things we don’t know.”

He goes further: “The real problem is we don’t know. And that is because nutritional value is seldom measured. We all base our recommendations on a few measurements. Why? Because it’s very expensive. If you want to measure one vitamin it takes you back about 100-300 euros. Suppose you take the cheapest option and you want to measure 10 compounds, that’s €1,000. If you want to measure that against three treatments that’s €3,000. A few repetitions and before you know it you’ve spent €10,000. No company has the money to pay these measurements over and over again. So nobody does it. And that’s a problem.”

Peppelenbos has been looking at developing some cheaper methods for measuring this content. And he’s reassuringly optimistic about what the possibilities will be if this content is measured. He points to increased knowledge about cultivars, more information about optimum growing conditions and better post harvest handling.

“It will help the horticultural sector come up with nutritional claims,” he said. “Not health claims - but nutritional claims. We can say this crop is a ‘source of’ or this crop is ‘high in’. It’s not possible at the minute because we don’t measure.”

But is this the only dilemma facing the fresh produce industry opined Peppelenbos. Unfortunately not. Consumption levels are still poor. According to the latest figures Peppelenbos stated that only 25-30 percent of adults are hitting the recommended daily intake. And that recommended daily intake, he went on, has actually increased. Previously it was 160-200g of fresh produce a day; now it’s 250g.

“Almost 75 percent of Dutch adults think they eat enough fresh produce. In fact only 15 percent actually reach the old limits (200g) on a daily basis. Some people think they can’t do it. I think that’s nonsense. We should be able to eat this. Or even more. It’s not that big an issue. The problem is we all think vegetables are something we eat at dinner and then the rest of the day not so much. How can we solve this?”

According to Peppelenbos we have to encourage people to think in a healthier manner. Pointing to work done by Brian Wansink at Cornell University, effective intervention in food choice can be achieved. Echoing the thoughts of Wansink food choice should convenient; attractive and normal. In other words, CAN. 

“Yes we can,” Peppelenbos boldly proclaimed. “So I’m optimistic. Yes, but is something like a cauliflower convenient. If I put it on the table do you think, I’m going to eat that right now? I don’t think so. So, yes a whole cauliflower is attractive but it’s not convenient. And it’s certainly not normal to eat it right now.”

Making it convenient seems to be the first vital step. In just a decade a pot of ready-to-eat cherry tomatoes has become convenient, attractive and eventually normal. Peppelenbos acknowledged that the competition within the snack market is huge - he displayed a slide showing countless chocolate bars and other confectioneries to back up his point. He urged the industry to come up with more and more products, similar to the cherry tomatoes in a pot.

“This is the challenge for the horticultural sector and the food industry,” he said. “But the horticultural sector and the food industry won’t make efforts if they think there is no market. At Wageningen we did research looking at what the market potential is for these products. What’s the market potential for other eating moments - breakfast, lunch, and snack time? How about other eating locations - daycare, school, meetings, on the go? And finally, other positioning - in restaurants and within marketing?

His research came back with some illuminating results. Within the childcare sector it was normal to provide fruit as a snack in the morning and in the afternoon a biscuit. But, said, Peppelenbos why not give them veg in the afternoon? Parents, he said, like it, the nursery workers like it, but they don’t have time to prepare a meal so it should be something easy. 

“The problem is this product does not exist, so we made it with a company and saw the children eat it. So the problem is supply.”

The same experiment was repeated at schools. Again it went down well, so the  problem remains supply. They carried out the experiment in the workplace, and specifically at meetings. Replacing biscuits and cakes with snack tomatoes and snack cucumbers saw workers eat 75g more veg. Even at restaurants reducing the amount of meat on a plate and increasing the amount of vegetables saw appreciation levels rise. There was less waste and, crucially, the price per plate was reduced.

When you make eating veg as a snack, or accompanying a main meal, normal, consumption can rise, noted, Peppelenbos. Of course the marketing mix has to be right, new products and concepts have to be introduced and the price has to be right. The products have to seamlessly fit into other eating moments and the promotion of these snacks has to be aspirational.

“From an old problem we can arrive at new opportunities. And this fundamentally means increased consumption of fruit and vegetable concepts.”

If this problem is solved, he concluded there are wide-ranging benefit including improved personal health, a reduction in health costs for society, increased income for farmers and other concepts such as creating other eating moments and eating locations which is, in turn, good for a healthy food industry.

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