Few Americans Finish Their Vegetables

Guests:

Walter Willett, MD, chairman, Nutrition Department, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Mass.

Michael Webber, associate director, Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy, assistant professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas

A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says two-thirds of Americans don't get the recommended two servings of fruit a day; three-quarters miss the target for vegetables. Ira Flatow and guests discuss ways Americans might be persuaded to eat more fresh produce.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

IRA FLATOW, host:

Next up: What's on your plate? Think about what you've had to eat today. How many fruits and vegetables? How many whole grains? Well, if you missed the morning banana and had pizza for lunch instead of the salad, well, you're really not alone, because a recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that survey reports that only a third, one-third of Americans eat the recommended two servings of fruit a day, and it's worse for vegetables. Only a quarter of Americans are eating their recommended three servings a day.

But how do you convince all these people, everybody, all of us, to trade in their fries for a carrot salad or pack an apple with lunch? Obviously, knowledge is not enough. We have that national dietary guideline. We've had that for about 30 years. And remember the food pyramid? Yeah. It doesn't seem like the pyramid of is all is was stacked up to be, so to speak. You do consult that pyramid before every meal now, don't you?

So maybe we need some new ideas. Remember home ec classes? Maybe we should bring it back. We should teach kids, all kids, boys and girls, the joys of veggies. Or how about vending machines for baby carrots instead of chips and soda? Some schools are trying this.

And there's always the pocketbook approach. Should we tax doughnuts, give credits - tax credits for your broccoli?

Do you have any ideas? Maybe you can think along with us. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Or do you think the American diet is just fine the way it is? You can also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. How do we get folks to eat more healthy?

Here's someone who has some good thinking about this, and that's Dr. Walter Willett. He's chairman of the Nutrition Department at Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. He joins us by phone.

Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Willett.

Dr. WALTER WILLETT (Chairman, Nutrition Department, Harvard School of Public Health): Thank you. And good to be with you.

FLATOW: Thank you. What do you make of the survey from the CDC? Match mostly what you think is happening?

Dr. WILLETT: I'm afraid it does. There's been a lot of words said, a lot of recommendations over the past 30 years. But the reality is that we've just not much - made much ground on increasing food and vegetable intake, and it doesn't seem to be going anywhere in the right direction at the moment.

FLATOW: So how would you get people to eat more fruits and veggies?

Dr. WILLETT: The answer isn't simple. You mentioned a few of the strategies, and I think the right answer is all of the above and more. In some ways, if you step back and look at the situation, it's really not too surprising that people are not eating more fruits and vegetables.

First of all, you have to look and see what's being promoted. For example, the Kaiser Family Foundation did a study a few years ago looking at the ads that children would see on television, and it's amazing. The average child sees about five or 6,000 ads per year. And in an evaluation of these ads, out of five or 6,000, there was not a single one that was promoting fruits and vegetables. It was almost all junk food. And I think there's just a huge imbalance between information and the amount of money spent on that. Billions of dollars are spent each year promoting junk, very little promoting healthy alternatives.

FLATOW: We're talking about healthy eating this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Dr. Walter Willett of Harvard.

I'm sorry to interrupt. We keep hearing that healthy food costs so much more.

Dr. WILLETT: Yes. Cost is an issue, and we actually did a study, recently published, which confirmed that on average, a healthier diet costs more. But what is also very important in that same study, for any cost, any amount of money spent on food, there's a huge variation on how healthy it is. Even on a fairly low-income budget, you can have a healthy diet, but you have to be sort of double smart to know what to pick out and know how to prepare it. But it's not impossible.

FLATOW: And what about the food pyramid? Is that of any use to anybody? I don't know anybody who consults it before they're eating anything.

Dr. WILLETT: Actually, the food pyramid has been a disaster, I'm afraid, in both its renditions. The first food pyramid mainly emphasized cutting down on fat and loading up with carbohydrates, and there was never any good science to support that in the beginning. And since that time, there's been much more evidence that the total percentage of calories from fat or carbohydrate isn't really important. It's the type of fat and the type of carbohydrate that's important. So that pyramid was taken apart and reassembled into what we have today, called MyPyramid, which is very colorful, with stripes. But it doesn't convey any information on nutrition at all.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's see if we can get a quick phone call in here before the break. Let's go to Ben in Rockville, Maryland. Hi, Ben.

BEN (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi, there.

BEN: Michael Bloomberg has proposed a two-year trial where people on food stamps will not be able to buy sugary sodas, and, in fact, may get extra dollars if they spend their food stamps on fruits and vegetables.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. The mayor of New York. What do you think of that?

Dr. WILLETT: I think that's a very sensible idea. It's something we've been suggesting for several years. It just doesn't make any sense at all, what we're doing. The cost of the food stamp program is over $80 billion a year, and I think that's important money. People really do need that as a safety net. But we're writing checks for - paying for Cokes with one hand, and on the other hand, we're writing checks to pay for treating diabetes caused by the Coke. That just doesn't make any sense. So sugary beverages have many adverse effects, and it just doesn't make sense that we're essentially contributing to their consumption through federal food programs.

FLATOW: Is there any society, any country in the world that is eating correctly?

Dr. WILLETT: I today, it's hard to find one. I think, though, if we look back about 40 or 50 years, the traditional Mediterranean diet came very close to what we see as an optimal diet. And at that time, Greek men, for example, had the longest life expectancy in the world. But even there, where diet was much better and almost optimal at that point in time, their fast food industry, the industrialized food industry, has really degraded that diet, as well.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a break, and we'll come back and talk lots more with Walter Willett and take your questions. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. Got any suggestions you want to throw in about how to eat healthier, make it a public policy or some way to get people to eat better foods? Or maybe you think that things are going just along, it's your choice. You can eat what you'd like. You can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I.

Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(Soundbite of music)

I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about eating healthy with my guest, Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the Nutrition Department at the Harvard School of Public Health. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri, S-C-I-F-R-I.

Dr. Willett, how do you practically in practical terms, you're in the supermarket. How do you change what you put into your cart if you want to eat healthy?

Dr. WILLETT: Well, you do need to have information, and there's a number of sources for that. But there are lots of choices in a supermarket that make a big difference. For example, if you're looking at breads, whole grain, high-fiber breads replacing white breads, brown rice replacing white rice, just making those simple switches on the form of the carbohydrate is, as it turns out, very important. Using healthy fats, liquid vegetable oils basically instead of hard fats like butter. Fortunately, we've gotten trans fats out of most of the products in the grocery stores, so that's actually one improvement we made just in the last three years.

And then using fruits and vegetables as much as possible. There's been a lot of focus on fresh, and those are good, but I think one important thing that a lot of people don't appreciate, that frozen is just as healthy. And oftentimes that it's a lot more convenient and costs less.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Speaking of preserving food by freezing it, I want to just change topics just a bit - and stay with us, Dr. Willett. I want to bring on Michael Webber. He's associate director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas at Austin, and he has done a study. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Michael.

Dr. MICHAEL WEBBER (Associate Director, Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy, University of Texas at Austin): Great. Thank you very much. A pleasure to be here.

FLATOW: I was just so intrigued on your study of how much energy we waste when we waste all this food.

Dr. WEBBER: Yeah. There's two pieces to this. People are often surprised at how much energy we invest in food, and then people are amazed at how much food we throw away. If you put them together, it turns out we throw away about 2 percent of the nation's energy consumption in food in our trash cans, or lost somewhere in the supply chain.

FLATOW: Give us an idea of that what's that equivalent to in energy that we use today?

Dr. WEBBER: It sounds like a small number of people, 2 percent of national energy consumption. That's not a big deal. But that's about 350 million barrels of oil, by energy equivalents. That's about twice as much energy as what Switzerland consumes in a year for all purposes. So it's a big number in the end, and it might be easier to save energy there than a lot of the other options we're considering.

FLATOW: So you mean if we just don't waste so much food, it would be better than, you know, screwing in the light bulbs and doing things like that?

Dr. WEBBER: That's right. So we spend a lot of money switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs - and that will save energy, and that's a good thing to do. But it turns out reducing food waste might have the same kind of energy impact as that. And the amount of energy embedded in the food we throw away is more than all the energy we get from all the ethanol we produce in a year, if you think about all the corn fields and all the money we throw at corn ethanol in a year. So this is a big number. It's a big, underutilized policy option for us to consider.

FLATOW: And where is that waste occurring, mostly? Where's it happening?

Dr. WEBBER: The waste for food doesn't occur in one particular place. It's happening all up and down the food supply chain. It happens at the farm. It happens in the trucks on the way from the farm elsewhere, at the processing plants, restaurants, the retailers and, of course, at home. I think all of us have some old jar of pickles in the back of our fridge that we should throw away. And now we're said to be something like 1 1/2 pounds of food or more per household, per day of food we throw away at home. And we're just a part of it. It's happening everywhere.

FLATOW: And I'm trying to get my head around that fact that you just said, and the energy wasted is more than all the ethanol we're making...

Dr. WEBBER: Yeah. I mean, the energy...

FLATOW: ...in the country today.

Dr. WEBBER: ...embedded in the waste...

FLATOW: Wow.

Dr. WEBBER: ...during the course of a year in the United States is more energy than all the energy we get from corn ethanol over a year. And corn ethanol has been a very important policy priority for the United States for the last decade, and it turns out it doesn't even give us as much energy as we could just avoid by changing some of our behaviors or patterns or investing in technologies in the food system.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We've been talking about trying to get people to change the way they eat. Can we get them to change the way they throw away food or waste food?

Dr. WEBBER: Probably. And these things go hand to hand, is my sense. You know, we have a portions issue in the United States, where we tend to have big portions. In fact, restaurants will advertise about their portions. And if you get big portions and you eat it, then you become obese, and even if you eat most of it but leave some over, you have waste. And so dealing with portion sizes might address public health issues like obesity and deal with the waste issue.

So there is a behavioral issue there. A lot of it's related to how much we spend on food. Food's relatively cheap in America, so we don't value it much and we don't mind if we throw it away.

FLATOW: You know, we used to have green grocers instead of supermarkets. And every day, you'd go in and buy what you needed for dinner that night instead of once a week going and filling up the big shopping cart which, you know, goes to the back of our refrigerator.

Dr. WEBBER: Sure. We're busy. Let's go once a week. Let's buy everything for the week. If we buy a little extra and throw it away, so be it. That's our current approach. And as long as you've got a big grocery store far away and gasoline's cheap to get there, that might be the right approach.

But if you have a closer model with a smaller grocery store in your neighborhood you can walk to and you buy just the food you need for the day, it sounds inconvenient. It sounds like more effort, so a lot of people aren't excited about it. But it would probably lead to less food waste and might change our eating habits entirely.

FLATOW: Dr. Willett, you've been sitting here and listening. Do you have any reaction?

Dr. WILLETT: I think that's a very important point. And that's not going to be sufficient, of course, but we need to do lots of things if we're going to add up to the kind of energy saving we really need to have. One thing that is also, I think, worth mentioning is the type of food that we eat has a huge impact on the energy that's used for food production. In particular, grain-fed beef is probably one of the biggest problems that the energy inefficiency in producing food that way is huge. And we'd be better off having less of that and more legumes, beans and nuts as a protein source. Not complete switch, but pushing our diet in that direction. We'll have both energy benefits, environmental benefits in model ways, and definitely health benefits.

FLATOW: Uh-huh. Michael Webber, what about beef there? Does it - it takes a lot of energy to make it, but do people throw it away as much as they might, just leave their rotten piece of lettuce in the refrigerator?

Mr. WEBBER: It turns out that beef is very energy intensive. You're exactly right, and so is dairy and so are shrimp. Chickens and fish are a little bit better, depending on how you make them. So the meats tend to be much more energy intensive and carbon intensive than just the grains. They also are more expensive, so we tend to waste less of them actually. So the rates of waste for vegetables and fruits are about twice as high as for the beef, primarily because the fruits and vegetables rot faster, but also because they're cheaper. So we go to less effort to spare them. So the energy in beef is much, much higher than the other foods. And as a consequence, it's more expensive. We tend to waste less.

But I think our other guest is correct that if we shift our diets a little bit, that can have a huge effect in overall energy consumption as well. Small shifts in behavior can have big impacts in the end.

FLATOW: Let me get a quick call in. Steven(ph) in St. James, New York. Hi, Steven.

STEVEN (Caller): Hello. How are you today?

FLATOW: Hi, there. Go ahead.

STEVEN: My question regards retail chains. They always have large amounts of Oreos or candies, what have you. If they were to offer fruits on a daily basis - they get daily milk deliveries, daily newspaper deliveries. Wouldn't that have a very similar impact? Wouldn't that have a very positive impact, wouldn't ameliorate this issue a bit, you know?

Dr. WILLETT: I'm not an expert on that, but it's something worth trying at least on an experimental basis probably.

Mr. WEBBER: And so (unintelligible). There's more energy moving around for the delivery services. But if it means people consume less, the savings will more than make up for the additional expenses of doing their home delivery. You know, when I was a kid, we got our orange juice, our eggs and our milk delivered and that went away in the mid '70s. And it's just coming back. We just started milk delivery at my home, and I think that's a new trend that's emerging.

FLATOW: Yeah. What's old is new. I always thought that was a great idea. Give us two things in our refrigerator - two or three things that we could save that we throw out and by making better of use of them. What are two of the highest energy wasters?

Mr. WEBBER: Dairy is a big one. We throw away dairies, and it's got a lot of energy, a lot of old milk that we might consider unsuitable to drink might be fine for batters or might be fine for using in other applications where it's imbedded into cakes or things that we bake. So that's an opportunity there. And I think the other thing is, we can be more careful about how we wrap our meats, and take care of our fruits and vegetables so they don't spoil as quickly. We can think about when we buy them and when we take them out of freezer and be more, sort of, advanced with our planning for when we're going to eat what foods and come up with a menu for the week so that we're not doing it ad hoc every day and making mistakes.

FLATOW: Is there a right way and a wrong way to wrap fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator?

Mr. WEBBER: Well, there's a, you know, various things you don't want to have. A rotten apple that can help lead to other rotten apples or things like that, where what's going on with one item in the fridge can affect the others. But I think it's more about how much you buy when.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WEBBER: And the idea of buying nine meals at a time from the grocery store - nine different dinners at a time is tough, because the food doesn't always make it nine days. And sometimes we take it out of the freezer at the wrong time or we cycle it from freezer to fridge, to freezer to fridge - and this can be a challenge as well. And then what happens is people get nervous, the meat looks funny, and they throw it out rather than take the risk of eating bad meat. Because if you've ever eaten bad food, it's not a pleasant experience. And so we tend to be overly cautious.

And if we had a better set of tools or diagnostics or technologies that would tell us whether it's spoiled with greater precision, that might help us avoid some of these waste that's from caution.

FLATOW: You mean, in the packaging of it, they might have...

Mr. WEBBER: Absolutely.

FLATOW: We could design packaging that tells us whether the food has gone bad or not.

Mr. WEBBER: Absolutely. So we use a very crude system right now of just expiration dates. And there's a lot of foods that's good well past the expiration date, and there's some food that maybe isn't good even at the expiration because it was exposed to the wrong temperature. But you can get labels that are temperature-sensitive that will tell you if they've been exposed to the wrong temperature for the wrong duration. There are technologies with fancy inks that will do that for you. And so we can get better indicators. We just haven't really thought about it and don't really invest that way. But there's some good opportunities waiting for us.

Mr. WEBBER: Dr. Willett, any comments?

Dr. WILLETT: I agree there's lots of advanced thinking and creativity that can be very useful. Sometimes we can get three or four meals out of a chicken. It's not just going at the first pass, but ending up in sandwiches down the road, soup. I think, very often, we just take a simple route, eat something once and throw a lot of it away that people in the past used very successfully.

FLATOW: Dr. Willett, what do you think of the idea of putting carrot vending machines in schools?

Dr. WILLETT: That's a great idea. I enjoyed that little article on that. And I think it's the sort of creativity that we need. Clearly, making healthy foods available is part of the solution, because part of the problem is that everywhere you look, whether you're at work or in stores or going anywhere, there's always junk food available.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. WILLETT: And we need to have a healthy choice alongside that.

FLATOW: Well, they say to shop around the edges, not in the center aisles.

Dr. WILLETT: That's basically where the fresh produce will be and that's what we're really talking about there. And that is a reality that, unfortunately, if you look in the center of the store, there are some good things there. But the vast majority is some form of processed sugar and refined starch in thousands of different forms and flavors and colors, but mostly just junk.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Well, thank you, gentlemen, for taking time to be with us today.

Mr. WEBBER: Thank you. My pleasure.

Dr. WILLET: Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Michael Webber is associate director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas at Austin. And Dr. Walter Willet is chairman of the Nutrition Department at Harvard School of Public Health.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY.

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