It sounds ridiculous given the 5 a day mantra, but the growing popularity of specialist diets that exclude certain veg means the likes of tomatoes, onions, cauliflower and broccoli are at risk of being portrayed as less than healthy - and, in some cases, as downright harmful.
Increased awareness of the Fodmap diet - a diet protocol used to treat irritable bowel syndrome - is a key driver of this trend. Sufferers are told to cut out a wide range of foods that cause fermentation in the gut, including several veg, to treat their digestive troubles.
It’s a scientifically backed treatment recommended by the NHS but, as the free-from boom has shown, specialist diets can gain huge mainstream traction - and result in shoppers unnecessarily cutting out foods.
“It’s definitely a concern, says Chloe Miles, a dietician and spokeswoman for the British Dietetics Association. “There’s a lot more consumer awareness of Fodmap, and you get the general public reading stuff online and trying it out. But these are really healthy foods with lots of vitamins and minerals that shouldn’t be cut out if you’ve not been diagnosed.”
Crucially, IBS sufferers are told to go on the Fodmap diet for no more than six to eight weeks at a time before reintroducing the foods they cut out - a fact that often gets lost in media coverage of the diet. As a result, some consumers don’t just erroneously self-diagnose but then also wrongly believe they ought to remove certain veg from their diets indefinitely.
At the same time as Fodmap is becoming more popular, the notion that nightshade vegetables - such as tomatoes, aubergines and potatoes - can cause inflammation in the body is gaining fresh currency. The nightshade/inflammation link has long been mooted in connection with arthritis, though there is no scientific evidence for it, and has resurfaced recently as a celebrity diet fad.
In early January, tabloid reports - including a piece in the Daily Express - emerged that Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen and her quarterback husband had cut out nightshades from their diets. “I’m very cautious about tomatoes. They cause inflammation,” the model was quoted as saying.
It’s too early to tell if cutting out nightshades will become a bigger trend but - in combination with concern about Fodmap - it’s a prospect that should worry growers. Indeed, the way fruit got dragged into the war on sugar is an indication of what could lie ahead for veg. “I am seeing more people asking ‘I eat a lot of fruit - is that bad for me?’ or saying ‘my family tell me not to eat so much fruit’, and I have to explain to them the sugar in fruit is absolutely fine,” says Miles.
There’s a third PR pressure point hitting the sector: increased media interest in how selective breeding has changed produce, and the impact on nutritional profiles. Last summer, the New Scientist had a piece on how breeding had made fruit & veg “less healthy”, and this week the Daily Mail ran an article highlighting how far removed modern varieties are from their ancestors.
As for how growers can respond to these trends, the scope is limited.
Developing new varieties that cause fewer problems for IBS sufferers is an option in theory, but that takes years. Plus, the EU’s tough health claims regime hardly encourages growers and seed developers to invest, says Dieter Lloyd of Pam Lloyd PR, who advises several leading growers. “There is also no guarantee of a higher return on the crop as, without being able to market a specific health claim, the products in question are just another fruit or veg on the shelf and priced accordingly,” he adds.
A more immediate option might be to step up communications and PR efforts to promote the health benefits of fresh produce. Low supermarket prices play their part in encouraging shoppers to stock up, but Public Health England may also face calls to pour as much effort into highlighting the benefits of produce as it does in warning against sugar.
The need to drive home the message that fruit and veg really are good for you could be greater than ever in 2016.