Stress, processed foods, and the increased use of medication are all playing havoc with our digestive systems. National Gut Week starts at the end of this month (August), and the good news for fresh produce players is that the message being put across by organisers is that a diet rich with vegetables and herbs can start the healing process
There’s a fair chance that, if they could talk, our digestive systems would very much agree with UK rock band Blur’s assertion that modern life is rubbish, because we appear to be introducing more and more junk food into our stomachs.
They might be right, but what can buyers do about this? Well, firstly, you need to be armed with the right information and understand which produce is most likely to have a positive effect.
Too many processed foods, refined sugars, alcohol, and caffeine are interfering with the gut microbiome, upsetting the natural balance and leading to an increase in digestive related disorders.
The campaign Love Your Gut, which brings together charity and medical organisations concerned with bowel and stomach diseases, claims that one in three of the UK population suffers from some form of digestive complaint.
For 16 years it has promoted Gut Week, this year taking place from August 31 to September 6, to raise awareness of how people can reclaim their digestive health through diet and lifestyle changes.
UK television presenter Gaby Roslin is this year’s ambassador, and during the week’s activity she will be promoting recipes devised by nutritionists, with an emphasis on vegetables and herbs – a message the produce industry could capitalise on.
“Gut health is an issue very close to my heart and something I have been campaigning to raise awareness of since my father was diagnosed with bowel cancer many years ago, which he thankfully survived,” explains Roslin.
“I’m particularly excited to be involved with the Gut Week Cookery School which will see myself and a nutritionist work up some of the delicious recipes that are designed to be gut-friendly.”
Of the foods known to be digestive friendly, prunes in particular are having a golden moment thanks in part to a campaign by the California Prune Board to have the fruit’s health benefits recognised by the European Food Safety Authority.
Dietician Jennette Higgs, who works with the California Prune Board, says the fruit can help people with the recommendations made in the recent report on carbohydrates by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition.
“[The] report has recommended we need to increase our fibre intakes to 30g per day, which is going to be difficult to achieve for many as on average the UK population was not achieving the previous lower recommendation (that equated to 23-24g per day),” Higgs says.
“Convenient sources of fibre, such as prunes, can be a useful addition to the diet to help contribute valuable fibre, as well as other nutrients. Dietary fibre is an essential component of a healthy balanced diet for proper functioning of the gut.
“It increases faecal mass and decreases intestinal transit times and insufficient fibre leads to constipation. A healthy gut flora (microbiota) will also be influenced by the fibre content of the diet, and recent research is pointing more and more to the importance of our gut bacteria as being crucial for good health.”
In terms of educating customers, telling them what they could eat is always high on the agenda, but how often do you delve into the realms of advising them how they should eat?
Naturopath Enid Taylor and co-founder of the Taymount Clinic, a practice of digestive health experts, says it is not just what we eat, but also how we eat that is the key to a better balance in the gut. She says that chewing is an often overlooked, but important aspect of processing food.
“Chew with your mouth closed, allowing lots of saliva to mix with the food,” she explains. “Ideally your food should be a liquid when it is swallowed. Some say at least 30 chews but at least this number and take smaller, and more polite, mouthfuls.
“It makes all the difference; what is not chewed cannot be digested fully – the enzymes only work on the surface and maybe 1mm down. If large particles exist, the enzymes cannot penetrate fully to digest them. What doesn’t digest will rot, and you make a simple choice between digestion or decomposition.
“This is why people have such bad smells coming from their digestive systems. Remember that stomachs do not have teeth; if you don’t chew it in your mouth; it stays in big lumps all the way down. [That represents] a waste of money on food you do not break down and absorb, as well as being a decomposition risk.”
Taylor says that people should also be wary of the claim by some bloggers and nutritionists not to eat raw foods later in the day, known as ‘No raw after 4’. “I have seen no scientific evidence that shows you should not eat raw food after 4pm,” she states.
“It is much harder for the body to digest any kind of food later in the evening when it is slowing down and preparing for sleep and rest. So do not eat anything after 7pm if you want to sleep well and especially no big meals after 8pm, it will all still be in your stomach the following morning.
“If you eat a high raw diet normally, you would of course want to eat raw foods after 4pm, so I don’t agree with that so-called ‘rule' and I have seen no published papers which support it.
“Good digestive health is not a case of swallowing one single food that will guarantee your health. Sometimes things like fennel, peppermint, camomile and celery can be used as tea to help calm upset tummies but this is only a short-term solution for a temporally irritated stomach.
“Generally, the way to good digestive health is to avoid high gluten foods, eat lots of varieties of vegetables, go easy on sweet fruits, and absolutely leave out added sugar and sweet foods, Eat fresh foods whenever possible and completely pass up on processed, packaged and convenience foods.”
And of course, ways to achieve better digestive health can be more than just eating, this industry has plenty in the way of drinks to offer. Another high profile proponent for digestive health is Nick Ledger, director of UK Juicers. Ledger was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis and claims that his symptoms were greatly reduced by a diet supplemented with vegetable juices.
“Personally I have found vegetable juices based on leafy greens to be very beneficial to the gut and have a soothing, tonic-like effect,” he says.
“A great combination that I drink regularly would be cucumber, celery, leafy greens (such as spinach or kale) and beetroot – although beetroot is quite potent so it needs to be used sparingly.
“I think it’s generally accepted that fruits are better eaten whole or in a smoothie. An apple can be a great thing to add to a green juice though to make it more palatable for some people.”
It’s not just the juicing industry that’s concerned with promoting good gut health, many health and grocery stores from independents to chains such as Whole Foods Market are dedicating entire sections of their stores to digestion-friendly vegetables and fruit-based foods, including fermented products.
With so much evidence pointing to the digestive system as the key to good health, isn’t it time that we as an industry begin to help the nation to hone their their gut instincts and stop treating their stomachs like a garbage bin?