This cynical five-a-day myth: Nutrition expert claims we've all been duped
By Zoe Harcombe
Last updated at 9:55 AM on 24th January 2011
With great fanfare, it was reported last week that the current health advice about eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day is outdated, and that scientists now believe that eight portions is more beneficial.
While many people grumbled about how on earth they would manage those extra portions, I *allowed myself a wry smile. For more than two years I’ve known that the ‘five-a-day’ mantra we’re all so familiar with is nothing but a fairytale
Myth: The truth is that fruit and veg are pretty useless nutritionally
Of course, they are tasty, colourful additions to any meal. But in terms of health and nutrition, fruit and veg have little to offer, and telling us to eat eight portions a day is compounding one of the worst health fallacies in recent history. Surprised? Many people will be, and no doubt some dieticians and nutritionists will reject my arguments. But science backs me up.
The latest findings come from a European study into diet and health looking at 300,000 people in eight countries.
It found that people who ate eight or more portions of fresh food a day had a 22 per cent lower chance of dying from heart disease. Yet just 1,636 participants died during the study from heart disease, which is about half of one per cent. Out of that very small proportion, fewer people died from the group that ate more fruit and veg. However, the researchers cautioned that these people may have healthier lifestyles generally. They may be less likely to smoke; they may eat less processed food; they may be more active.
What we should not do is to make the usual bad science leap from association to causation and say ‘eating more fruit and veg lowers the risk of dying from heart disease’.
This survey comes not long after another large study, which examined half a million people over eight years, reported that fruit and veg offer no protection against breast, prostate, bowel, lung or any other kind of tumour. Those eating the most fruit and veg showed no difference in cancer risk compared with those *eating the least.
So how have we been duped for so long? You might assume our five-a-day *fixation is based on firm evidence. But you’d be wrong.
It started as a marketing campaign dreamt up by around 20 fruit and veg *companies and the U.S. National Cancer Institute at a meeting in California in 1991. And it’s been remarkably successful. People in 25 countries, across three continents, have been urged to eat more greens, and have done so in their millions, believing it was good for them. No doubt it was set up with the best intentions — to improve the health of the nation and reduce the incidence of cancer. But there was no evidence that it was doing us any good at all.
The fact that our own government has spent £3.3 million over the past four years on the five-a-day message shows how pervasive this belief is. People are convinced that fruit and vegetables are a particularly good source of vitamins and minerals.
For a long time, I too was a believer. I was a vegetarian for 20 years. It is only after nearly two decades of my own research — I am a Cambridge graduate and currently studying for a PhD in nutrition —that I have changed my views.
The message that fruit and veg are pretty useless, nutritionally, gradually dawned on me.
The facts are these. There are 13 vitamins and fruit is good for one of them, vitamin C. Vegetables offer some vitamins — vitamin C and the vegetable form of the fat-soluble vitamins A and vitamin K1 — but your body will be able to absorb these only if you add some fat, such as butter or olive oil. The useful forms of A and K — *retinol and K2 respectively — are found only in animal foods. As for minerals, there are 16 and fruit is good for one of them, potassium, which is not a substance we are often short of, as it is found in water.
Vegetables can be OK for iron and calcium but the vitamins and minerals in animal foods (meat, fish, eggs and dairy products) beat those in fruit and vegetables hands down. There is far more vitamin A in liver than in an apple, for instance.