MY HUSBAND thinks that if you eat five Starburst sweets – all different flavours, of course – it’s the same as having your five servings of fruit and vegetables a day.
I thought he was the only one, but it turns out that perhaps he’s not so unusual after all. New data from the Food Standards Agency shows that 20 per cent of Scots believe that jam counts towards our five-a-day. After years of trying to educate the masses into eating more healthily, the FSA commented: “Clearly, we still have work to do.”
True. There is much work to be done to help the Sick Man of Europe get back on his feet, but – apart from rolling my eyes at my husband – I have no intention of laughing at the Scots simply because some of us aren’t clued up about what precisely constitutes a single portion of fruit.
Launched in 2003, the high-profile five-a-day campaign has yet to make any perceptible impact on the way Britons eat, but perhaps that’s because it’s so bemusingly arbitrary. For example, the UK may urge its population to eat five-a-day, but Denmark says six, Australia suggests seven and the US insists upon nine. Meanwhile, the Spanish, Greeks and Irish don’t like to restrict themselves to mere numbers; they use pyramids to explain what their people should be eating. The Germans have a staircase to illustrate the best and worst foods for health, the Hungarians have a house, and the Latvians just say that it’s a good idea to make fruit and veg 30 per cent of your daily food intake.
Not only do the campaign buzzwords and images vary from country to country, but everybody also has vastly differing opinions about what one “portion” actually means.
In the UK, a “handful” of cherries equals one portion. No mention of the size of the hand. So, if I followed that guideline, I could easily and correctly count a whole Black Forest gateau as one of my five-a-day. On the other hand, I could pulp as much real, whole fruit as I liked, but it would never meet requirements, because the five-a-day guidelines stipulate that fruit juices and smoothies can only ever count as two portions.
So, given how badly conceived this initiative is, I prefer to view the FSA statistics more positively. The fact is that 80 per cent of Scots know that jam does not count towards their five-a-day. And even the hapless 20 per cent that don’t are aware that jam contains fruit, which is reassuring proof that they know fruit exists. Heck, given Scotland’s appalling reputation for nutritional ignorance, it’s a start.
Granted, some shop-bought jams may be to real fruit what Lion bars are to real lions, but there’s still fruit involved. Let’s not be snobby about people’s perceptions of already flawed guidelines. Baked beans count towards our five-a-day. In the US, so do chips. I’m guessing that, by the same standards, a banana fritter is still a banana, underneath all the batter. And surely that’s better than a deep-fried Mars bar?
The current Scottish diet perhaps hasn’t changed enough since the 1970s. We like our sweeties and our fizzy drinks. If we could get away with it, we’d make a five-a-day out of jam, Tango, Raspberry Angel Delight, Soor Plooms and spring onion crisps.
But the facts and figures show that people weren’t particularly fat in the 1970s. So what’s different today? I’d say two things: increased portion sizes and increased processing.
For over a decade now, we’ve been urged to eat our five-a-day, yet the obesity figures are rising. Between 2012 and 2015, the Scottish Government will spend more than £7.5 million on healthy eating initiatives. It really does not need to. It seems to me that we would be doing ourselves a big favour – and saving ourselves an awful lot of money – if we just dropped the five-a-day campaign, and all its deceptively complicated stipulations, and simply said (really loudly): Eat More Fresh Produce.
Make fruit and vegetables more affordable – especially organic – and teach children in schools to cook meals with fresh ingredients from scratch. Then the Sick Man will be well again in no more than a generation.
Until then, don’t skimp on the jam; just try to remember not to deep-fry the sandwich.