The food and drink industry has launched a major drive to increase consumption of fruit and veg. But will it convince the government? Ian Quinn reports

It’s more than 10 years since the Labour government launched its five-a-day campaign to increase fruit and veg consumption.

Last week, official statistics from the Department of Health showed just how little progress has been made.

The figures, more generous than other studies because they take into account ‘composite’ foods which include some element of fruit or veg show more than 70% of adults are failing to hit five portions a day.

Women are eating as little as 0.3 portions a day, while just 13% of boys aged 11 to 18 and less than one in 10 girls of that age come up to scratch. Shockingly, the stats show little change in dietary habits since 1994, when the survey began.

So after years of failure by government, can food and drink companies provide the answers themselves?

This week the industry presents its own long-envisaged initiative a voluntary code of good practice produced by IGD and a team of nutritionists, backed by suppliers and retailers from Coca-Cola to Mars and Nestlé, as well as all the leading supermarkets.

The guide aims to increase fruit and veg consumption by encouraging food and drink businesses to provide more consistent information about the content of composite foods, and nudge customers ­towards healthier choices.

If it succeeds it could catapult thousands of products, from tinned beans to ready meals, into an industry-standard “healthy” category, even including a new class of product classified as contributing half a portion towards the ­elusive five-a-day.

But the move comes at a time when the relationship between the industry and the Department of Health is at a vital crossroads, with health secretary Andrew Lansley under increasing pressure from health groups and opponents in parliament to abandon his own nudge tactics in favour of the whip.

Any thoughts the industry’s latest offering will require a simple rubber stamp have been shot to pieces by recent developments.

After calling on retailers to buck their ideas up (The Grocer, 4 June, p14) and do more to help the Deal, Lansley pulled the plug on government backing for a series of health pledges drawn up by supermarkets including Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons, despite an identical commitment being embraced by the Scottish government.

The deal would have committed retailers in England to increase the proportion of fruit and veg in own-branded products and provide more healthy eating information.

But Lansley, although committed to coming up with a fruit and veg initiative in the next phase of the Responsibility Deal, sent retailers packing, with speculation he did not think the deal went far enough and was frustrated that it was a unilateral move by retailers.

The decision followed a report by the House of Lords, slamming the Deal for being too cosy with businesses and not aligned enough with medical advice.

The government has promised more in the autumn, leaving a nervous wait for the industry. So where will the IGD guide fit in?

First envisaged in 2007 but pushed into the long grass by ­other industry initiatives on areas such as transfats the guide is, of course, voluntary, which will doubtless be seized upon by the health lobby.

But if the plan of achieving industry-wide consistency pays off, not only could potentially misleading information about products’ health benefits be weeded out, ­potentially thousands of products may be seen in a new light, ­boosting sales and health.

The guide will allow suppliers to calculate an equivalent fruit and veg benefit to consumers when comparing their ranges with a fresh product, including how various combinations of fruit and veg ­ingredients can add up to half a portion or more.

A 200g tin of baked beans could confidently be eaten knowing it will provide 1.5 portions of fruit and veg, from a combination of bean and tomatoes, it says.

A Tesco kids’ cottage pie makes up one child’s portion from a mix of five fruit and vegetable ingredients, while an Innocent Veg Pot, with nine elements, can be claimed as containing three portions.

Report author Rachel Hackett, nutrition and scientific affairs manager at IGD, says a key aim of the guide is to remove confusion from the plethora of different labelling systems currently used by suppliers and retailers, who despite the benefits of five-a-day having been on the government’s radar for at least 20 years, have no acknowledged system to stick to.

“We want to see a consistent ­approach,” she says. “We know from our research that 46% of people say they expect to buy more products that contain fruit and veg in order to be more healthy.

“We hope this guide will help people make decisions that will help them have a more balanced diet.”

But Hackett admits it is not yet clear whether the guide will receive such strong backing from the ­government.

One crucial area that will help decide is which products will be disqualified from being able to claim health benefits. For this, the IGD uses the DH’s amber levels of fat, sugar and salt content as a benchmark, under which a food product could still be labelled healthy up to the point where it contained 30% of a person’s GDA for fat and up to 40% of salt.

Reducing salt is one of the key parts of government thinking and it has already said it will not back any deal it believes gives approval to products with too-high levels.

Hackett admits that while 30 food and drink businesses and some charities, including the British Heart Foundation, have been involved in the guide, other non-government organisations snubbed an invite to a meeting in March to thrash out details, and many remain completely opposed to any health initiatives led by food suppliers.

She says the Department of Health, while kept informed of the initiative, has given no solid indication as yet that it will back it as part of the Responsibility Deal.

“We will be closely following what happens with the Deal to see how this guide will affect it and vice versa,” she says. “We don’t know we’re going to get 100% support but we hope they will recognise this opportunity to work with the industry to get consistency.”

What counts?

- Composite food and drink can be labelled as contributing to five-a-day if they have at least half a portion of fruit and vegetables
- Food and drink disqualified if it has too much saturated fat, salt or sugar. For example, fat content in food must be below 30% of GDA and salt less than 40%
- Nutrition labelling must be provided on the product
- Calculation of fresh equivalent for processed fruit and vegetables to be based on online calculator
- Portion sizes must be appropriate to the product based on an IGD guide (see link below)

Source: IGD guide (