Why Aren't Americans Eating More Fruits and Vegetables?

By Tom Farley

The latest trend in fruits and veggies? Shockingly, Americans are eating less.

Fruits and vegetables have so much going for them. They provide essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Studies show that they reduce the risk of our biggest killers: cardiovascular disease, cancer, and weight gain. Americans don’t need to be convinced. In a national survey of shoppers, nine in ten said fruits and vegetables are healthy, two-thirds said they prevent heart disease and obesity, and half said they prevent diabetes and cancer. Lately I hear constant talk of fruits and vegetables, from the First Lady to community activists railing against “food deserts”. So it’s stunning to me that consumption fell 7% from 2009 to 2014. 

While that news is grim, there are a few hopeful signs. Although consumption is sinking in older adults, it’s increasing for some categories in children and adults under forty. 

The report with these data, from the Produce for Better Health Foundation, answers some of the mystery. Long-term social trends are changing the over-forty crowd. Over the last few decades, women – who still do almost all of the cooking - increasingly work outside of the home, so they cook less and eat out more. When they do cook, they prepare fewer dishes per meal. The 1960’s-era three-part dinner of pot roast, potatoes, and green beans is fading into history, being replaced by the 2010’s-era frozen pizza.

Fruits and fresh vegetables are making a modest comeback among children and younger adults, though. Younger people are more likely to eat fruit for breakfast, and fruit or carrots for snacks. 

Still, with people so publicly enthusiastic about fruits and vegetables, I would expect consumption to be high and still surging. Why isn’t it?

Because fruits and vegetables are overwhelmed by the food companies’ marketing of junk food. They design and packaging it for convenience, so it’s ready to grab and eat with your hands. Then they litter our world with it, placing chips and soda at eye level in food stores, at checkout lines, in convenience stores, at cash registers of non-food stores, and in vending machines in offices and schools. They put it in single-serving containers, priced cheaply, so you can buy it on impulse even if you have only a dollar in your pocket. And they promote it massively, with product placement in our favorite television shows and billions in advertising that fills our computer and TV screens, road signs, and neighborhoods.

 
junkfood
 

Fruits and vegetables can’t compete. They’re confined to the produce section of supermarkets. Fruits and vegetables spoil if they sit for a few days on a store display case or in your refrigerator, so much is wasted. Fruit has to be peeled, and most vegetables have to be cooked. You need plates and utensils to eat them. And almost no one advertises them.

 
fruits and vegetables
 

What can we do? We can do a better job of marketing fruits and vegetables, learning from the marketing of junk food. That means putting versions that are easy to grab and ready to eat in more places. And it means advertising them, as cleverly as Coke and Doritos are advertised now. If advertising works for the junk food that people know is bad for them, it will work for food that people recognize as healthy.

This should make us wonder, though. If fruits and vegetables are so good at preventing the main diseases that kill us, why doesn’t our three-trillion-dollar health care system - which is supposed to keep us healthy - do this kind of marketing?