Lost in the Desert: Nutritionists and Fresh Produce Professionals Discuss How to Get More People to Eat Healthy

Screen Shot 2018-04-09 at 11.48.40 AMTwo hundred and forty dieticians, fresh produce farmers and shippers descended upon the desert of Scottsdale, Arizona last week to talk about how to convince you to save your life. They are perplexed and confused scores of modern diseases continue to increase even though so much science exists that show these maladies could be abated by eating more fresh fruit and vegetables.

The Produce For Better Health Foundation’s (PBH) annual meeting,, this year with the theme “The Consumer Connection,” featured panel after panel with nutrition experts lamenting how difficult it is to get people to foods that are not only the antidote to those diseases, but the best tasting and satisfying foods on the planet. The PBH sprang out of the well-known marketing initiative “5 A Day,” which encouraged consumers to eat five servings of fresh fruit and vegetables a day. The history of that effort took some twists and turns over the past few decades as it came under the direction of the National Cancer Institute and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Eventually the “5 A Day” slogan was dropped for “Fresh Fruit and Veggies—More Matters.” Perhaps unintentionally prophetic, the movement ceased promoting only five servings a day. In the last few years new findings have shown we may need seven to ten servings a day for optimal health.

PBH-Annual-Meeting-2018But the history of PBH is unimportant in the scheme of what is happening now in the world of fresh produce, dietetics and nutrition. With hardly a week going by a new study appears in the health and scientific world that confirms more fresh fruit and vegetables in our diets will go a long way to solving almost every disease or malady the modern world faces. The fact that the PBH meeting is in the desert is symbolic.

Much has been made about “food deserts” in the United States and around the world. These places are geographical pockets where healthy food is not readily available because of economic demographics. In these areas there is a dearth of grocery stores that are more readily available in more affluent neighborhoods. But listening to the speakers and panelists at “The Consumer Connection” you would think the entire world is a food desert. And they may be right.

Obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer know no economic or geographical boundaries. People in all social strata seem to choose convenience, fatty content and highly processed foods before thinking about what is the healthiest options for their meal choices. The desperation and exasperation from the attendees at the PBH meetings swelled up in emotionally charged pleas and questions to the panelists.

But amidst the lamentations that these foodies expressed, there were solutions, and good ones, that rang out in the presentations. Dr. Pamela Peeke, the keynote speaker for the conference, is one of the biggest promoters of a relatively new field of science called “epigenetics.” Indeed her presentation was one of the best received of the conference. As a physician and nutritional scientist, Dr. Peeke has been carrying the message for the last several years that “You are what you eat.” And by that she doesn’t just mean food. Peeke was startled into an awakening by a serendipitous scientific experiment by Randy Jirtle, a professor of radiation oncology at Duke University, who seemed to be obsessed with fat mice. Her explanation of what happened there doesn’t belong here but suffice it to say that he discovered that an animal’s DNA could be reinterpreted to effect drastic change for the better (or worse) by altering behavior and thought. She says that prior to this discovery, “DNA was the ‘Holy Grail’ of your destiny and there was nothing you could do about it.”

But with Dr. Jirtle’s discovery it was revealed that certain genes could be “silenced” or “turned off” to negate the negative effects from your decadent parents and grandparents habits. Dr. Peeke said that that it comes down to “Mind, Mouth and Muscle” if you really want to reinterpret your DNA. In other words, somewhere down in your molecular makeup, the DNA strand eagerly (or anxiously) awaits signals from what you are thinking, what you are eating and what you are doing to determine how to react. If you are thinking that a McDonalds cheeseburger would be really good now, hop in the car in the car to grab a supersized meal to scarf down in the late hours of the night, you have just signaled to your DNA to turn on a fat gene. On the other hand, if you resist that fat-ladened treat and envision yourself as the thin person you want to be, decide to eat a piece of fruit and then go for a 15-minute walk, you are conversely turning off that fat gene.

We may have oversimplified this process but in essence that is what happens according to Dr. Peeke. And the more you do it the more your DNA gets reinterpreted to predispose you to the thoughts and actions for the future.

Other panels included one on food trends that postulated consumer adoption of new products in food very often start in restaurants and other sectors of the food service industry. The presenter, Colleen McClellan works for a company called Datassentials which tracks consumer patterns in the fresh produce industry. McClellan took her audience through a presentation which showed how virtually unknown fruits and vegetables like kale and acai rose from obscurity to ubiquitous items on menus at all types of restaurants. Then she showed some of the most likely produce items that will burst on the scene in the next few years. Fruits like the yuzu, a type of citrus from Asia that is somewhat of a cross between a grapefruit and a mandarin orange, and the Ube, a purple sweet potato from the Philippines, are two of the items she predicted will be household names in the near future.

McClellan also highlighted the gap growing between Baby Boomers and Generations X, Y and Z. According to her, Boomers are much less likely to try new trends while each successive generation of X, Y and Z become more likely to adopt new trends. This gave optimism to the attendees there since one of her conclusions was that the younger generations are looking to eat healthier with a diet that is much more plant based.

Yet, McClellan also made it clear that all consumers, regardless of age, are still making their food choices based first on taste and experience and not on its health benefits. “Plant-based foods will only take hold if they are ‘crave worthy,’” she warned the audience. This led well into a later presentation presented by Jack Graham of Today’s Dietitian magazine and Jenna Bell of Pollock Communications, an agency dedicated to clients in the health and wellness industries.

Graham and Bell took their audience through the results of a yearly survey they have been conducting among dietitians for the past seven years. In the survey, the dietitians were asked to identify trends in eating and dieting that they recognize from their many clients. Graham pointed out the survey is effective because it is not just the opinions of the dietitians on what they think the trends are or should be, but what they are hearing from their client base. Because of that the survey gives a much broader picture than just the 2,000 people who participated. The survey showed how diet trends have shifted over those past seven years and which ones faded quickly as temporary fads and others that have endured. Registered dietitians often lament the rise of so many new diets promising their new ways to eat as a panacea for weight loss and health. This was a common topic of questions and discussions following many of the sessions.

The exasperation and despair of these diet experts came out often in the Q and A portions of the panels. With so much science supporting how a simple diet filled with fresh and natural foods and lots of fruits and vegetables, these professionals find it difficult to understand why we have not alleviated the health crisis in the modern world. But they are not unrealistic and readily admitted that science alone is not enough to motivate people to eat healthy. People need to have an emotional push to adopt new ways of eating and taking care of their health. So the discussions also had a tone of optimism. There was hope among them that the leadership of fresh produce professionals and dietitians can help consumers change their habits and reverse many of the health difficulties they face. So while we may be lost in a symbolic “food desert” now, the hope from those promoting fresh fruits and veggies is that we will find our way out of it.

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