UK led astray by ‘At least 5 a day’ message

Jim Prevor

In this fresh opinion post, Jim Prevor, the Perishable Pundit, offers his thoughts on why generic promotional pleas to increase fresh-produce consumption might have failed and offers insight into different approaches


The UK has a new logo urging (or maybe admonishing?) people to eat “At least 5 a day”. It actually comes across more like pleading, as one wonders why health officials don’t give a specific number. After all, in Australia the programme is called “Go for 2 & 5”, which specifically urges five vegetable servings a day and two fruits a day. Of course, across the pond North Americans have abandoned numerical certainty all together. The Canadians call their programme “Fruits and Veggies – Mix it up!”, while the Yanks go with “Fruits & Veggies – More Matters”.

There is an assortment of varied names – and numbers – across the globe. There are many different kinds of programmes, some under public management, as in the UK, and some under private management, as in the US. What all these programmes share, though, is a lack of evidence that they have caused produce consumption to increase.

Certainly it is true that the message, even after all these years, is a bit unclear. Precisely why ought people eat these fruits and vegetables? In the UK there is the Fresh Produce Consortium’s eat in colour drive and in the US, in between the original 5 a Day programme and Fruits & Veggies – More Matters, we had 5-A-Day – The Color Way. The idea behind both being about urging consumers to eat a wide variety of colours in their choice of fruits and vegetables as there are benefits in phytochemicals and micronutrients in various produce items, so diversity is important.

Eat in colours advert

This may be true, but in the US it was felt the slogan was ahead of the science. And talking points claimed things such as that eating produce of various colours “Cuts the risk of Cancer” – though the National Cancer Institute, which was the original governmental sponsor of the 5 a Day message, ultimately found the evidence too skimpy to want to be associated in that manner and passed the sponsorship baton onto the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has a more general interest in health.

Alternatively, the message sometimes seems to be one related to obesity; if one consumes more produce, that consumption will somehow crowd out other less healthy foods and thus one will be thinner. But that is an uncertain effect as well. If consumers maintain their current diets and, like taking medicine, simply vow to eat their five produce items before bed, they might actually increase total calories consumed and become more obese. 

Why have these efforts failed to move the needle on consumption? 

Well some argue that the problem is scale. The budgets of these efforts simply pale before the massive marketing budgets of Coca-Cola and McDonald’s and other food companies. There is, of course, truth to this. It is also true, though, that the finger-wagging nannyisms, telling people what they ought to do, rarely prove effective in marketing. Besides, thinking this way is a convenient crutch for the industry. We can lament the difficulties we face in having small commodity-based budgets, without having to do very much about our products.

It is not clear that extensive consumer advertising would actually boost produce consumption. There are prerequisites to brand-building, and consistency of product is one of them. Those massive ad budgets for Coca-Cola are backed up by a beverage that tastes the same everywhere and always. Advertising that draws consumers to trial products and services can simply accelerate the rate at which people are turned off those products or services if the experience is inconsistent. Getting people to eat a wooden-tasting peach, a mealy apple or a dry piece of citrus, is not a route likely to increase consumption.

Besides all this, efforts to incite people to change dietary habits are very difficult because produce consumption is not something that occurs as an independent variable. There have been many studies on this subject, and what most find is similar to what this study in Canada found: “In particular, individual educational attainment is positively and significantly associated with F&V consumption frequency across different parts of the F&V distribution…”

In other words, the world sends out information to people, saying things such as “if you want to be a success, you ought to go to school”. Those capable of absorbing these messages do go to school, and they receive other messages, such as “eat your fresh fruit and vegetables”, and they follow that public advice as well.

Other people are not as good at receiving these messages. They don’t go to school, they do drugs, smoke cigarettes, have unprotected sex and don’t eat very well. To think we can pull out one sliver of this counter-productive behaviour and allow them not to absorb these other messages, but singularly latch onto the benefits of eating produce – that is wishing for something unlikely to happen.

Retailers have always liked these generic industry-wide programmes. But that is because if a brand or even a single commodity offers a promotional opportunity, it comes with strings attached – the retailers have to promote that particular brand or commodity. These broad-based generic programmes come with no strings and leave retailers free to operate as they wish.

Yet these programmes are unlikely to be the future because the industry is not moving this way. The future is not standardised commodities but, rather, distinct genetics sold under brand. When the mighty Tesco came to America to open its Fresh & Easy concept, it held a vendor meeting in which it explained its private label, re-packed concept to its US suppliers. Driscoll’s, selling proprietary genetics under its own brand, didn’t see an alignment with Fresh & Easy and politely left the meeting.

It is this new approach that creates the possibility of extraordinary and consistent flavour to justify consumer marketing and higher branded margins to pay for it. Then free from government restrictions, these products can be cross-promoted in recipes with cognac and ice cream, selling the sensuous side of produce. This is a side far more likely to actually boost consumption than a plaintive plea to eat at least five fruits and vegetables a day.



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