Fruit, veg and unhealthy ‘reporting additives’

By Simon Barrow
April 7, 2010

If you’re a hard-pressed parent or guardian trying to encourage your child to eat a bit more healthily with their ‘five-a-day’ portions of fruit and veg, your job has just been made unnecessarily harder by the BBC and other media outlets.

(This also applies if you are trying to tackle obesity and promote adult health in a food-industry dominated consumer climate, too.)

Why? Because right now the Beeb are trumpeting from every news orifice a “story” that eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day “has little impact on cancer” according to a new survey that analysed research on recruits to the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition from 10 different countries. This “contradicts” “findings” “in the 1990s”, we are being told – and it implicitly “undermines claims” made for the “five-a-day message” (which, it should be noted, is a minimal, generalised, average recommendation - rather than a detailed prescription).

What this “story” ( will lead some to suppose is that somehow long-standing health advice on eating much more fruit and veg has now been found to be “yet more moralistic, misleading tosh”, as a caller on a radio chat show said this morning. That is quite untrue. For the following reasons:

1. The 1990 World Health Organization recommendation that people consume at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day was related to overall health benefits and prospects of diminishing the impact of a range of chronic diseases. Cancer was mentioned, but it was not the only or main message.

2. The BBC says the new research “has failed to substantiate the suggestion that as many as 50% of cancers could be prevented by boosting the public's consumption of fruit and vegetables.” That’s true. But how many people were actually making such an inflated and imprecise claim? And how many scientists? Quite.

3. “In the best case scenario, an extra two portions of fruit and vegetables each day could prevent 2.6% of cancers in men and 2.3% of cases in women, the study concluded.” Indeed. And that is pretty significant! For the UK, this works out at about 7,000 cases a year, points out Dr Rachel Thompson of the World Cancer Research Fund. Small percentages may look insignificant to journos who thrive on ‘mega’, but that doesn’t mean they look that way – in proper context – to doctors, patients and researchers. (The same goes for the “weak effects” BBC radio has been quoting. To Jo Blogs that may mean “ineffective”. To a researcher it is a qualified judgement about the measurement of relative effects.)

4. The editorial in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute at Harvard University, accompanying and commenting on the research findings, “stressed specific substances contained in certain fruit and vegetables, if harnessed, could still have an important, protective effect,” – lycopene from tomatoes and chemicals in broccoli, for example. Quite. So they are not dismissing benefits, merely pointing out that there is no panacea here.

5. No-one in the know seriously questions the overall health benefits of eating more fruit and vegetables (including leafy veg), reducing sugar, fat and salt intake, maintaining a balanced diet with sensible portions, and drinking more fresh water. Indeed, such a “diet” – unlike most of the nonsense peddled in magazines, websites and TV puffs – would have a revolutionary impact on health, disease control and life chances among the overwhelming number of people.

To summarise: this, in short, is the actual story: “The latest research confirms that inflated and isolated claims for correlating the increased intake of fruits and vegetables with reducing the risk of specific cancers by a very large degree, which no-one is really saying anyway (other than some science-illiterate journalists and PRs), is not sustainable. But that isn’t really the issue, because some overall benefits from significantly increasing the proportion of fruit and veg in your diet while eating, sleeping and exercising better are undeniable.”

Yes, I know “not so sexy”. But truthful and beneficial.

The headline for that might read, “New research does not undermine the known importance of eating fruit and vegetables for a healthy diet.” Which is not exactly what the Beeb and other news outlets are putting across, and which we would no doubt be told is “not news” – news being something that “makes good headlines.” And therein lies the problem when some important facts are deemed "boring".

In fairness, it should be stressed that the majority (not all) of the information and analysis needed to reach a fair, balanced and sensible lay conclusion about this matter is in the BBC’s web report (despite the headline ‘Five-a-day has little impact on cancer, study finds’, and much questionable construal). But that isn’t the point. The presentation of the significance of this reported research is – as is so often the case these days with reported medical or scientific research – inflated, misleading and unhelpful in terms of conveying reasonable health messages.

Which is what makes it so unpalatable.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.