PHOENIX -- A host of new research from a variety of sources is compelling the entire produce industry, from grower/shipper to retailer, to improve the methods they use in selling fresh fruits and vegetables to consumers.
But more than assuming yet another regulatory burden, the industry can also bring about improved marketing strategies that boost consumption, and therefore profits, according to at least one dietary expert.
"We're entering an information age where we're going to have to do marketing of fruits and vegetables in a more sophisticated way, with more information than in the past," said Charlene Rainey, president of Nutrition Research Network, Irvine, Calif., during the recent annual convention here of the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Alexandria, Va.
Rainey presented brand new statistics indicating that tomorrow's marketplace will require more education on the part of both sellers and consumers of fresh produce. Citing new consumption research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, Rainey explained that an enormous opportunity exists to boost consumer produce sales, and can be tied to improved data concerning exact nutrient counts, as well as illness-specific health benefits.
For example, research indicates that diabetes is on the rise in this country, and shoppers afflicted with this disease are changing their buying patterns in an effort to control their insulin levels. At store level, this means altering the way supermarkets sell carbohydrates, including fresh produce.
"The glycemic index of your food might be an important piece of information that your consumers are going to want to know. They might want to know that one of the lowest sugar fruits is strawberries," said Rainey. "Or, that your fruits can have carbohydrates in them, but are low in starch, and [therefore] have a low glycemic index."
Similarly, today's concern -- osteoporosis ("what cholesterol was in the 80s") -- can now be measured every year using a special exam. Rainey said the industry can work together to develop new labeling and informational signage for specific produce items that includes updated nutrient data and health benefits.
"All of the new epidemiology studies are showing that low fruit consumption equals low bone density in the elderly," she said. "I think it's going to be a new opportunity for you to say 'Eat your fruits and vegetables and build strong bones."'
Rainey warned, however, that interpreting raw data for the purpose of nutritional labeling and comparative claims can be one of the biggest pitfalls facing the industry. Some attempts have met with embarrassment.
"There are so many different public policies, it's hard to keep them straight as to which agency or which department within which agency is working on these changes," she said.
There are several reasons the various entities compiling data are reaching conflicting conclusions: differing sampling methods, different lab techniques and bad math, she said. Oftentimes, the lab tests themselves can destroy the nutrients being measured. Likewise, the produce under examination might demonstrate differences in nutrient levels due to the time of year it was harvested, or the distance traveled to the laboratory.
In one specific example, she recalled the recent attempt by a group of seven tomato growers to promote their product as having seven times the amount of Vitamin A (and its component, lycopene) than other brands. Further testing proved that the elevated levels of Vitamin A were the result of a math mistake.
Still, improvement in uniform testing will result in such claims becoming a reality. Rainey said that tests can now gauge the level of Vitamin A, as well as the nutrient's composition of lycopene, carotene, betacarotene and alphacarotene.
"The changes that will come about in updating nutrition labels will mostly come from new laboratory methods, because the data that we're currently using for fruits and vegetables is 10 to 20 years old," she said. "They're going to make your current marketing materials obsolete."
Rainey noted that "FDA has approved health claims, but no one in the fruit and vegetable industry is availing themselves to the extent that they could be using these." One potential avenue to pursue is tying the convenience factor in marketing health benefits to consumers, a strategy that has met with success in some categories, she said.
"[Some] growth in vegetables is from convenience products offered in the frozen-food department and in food service. You might use them as an example of how to bring other vegetables to follow the same example, and boost consumption of other commodities.
"When we look at the success of the national cholesterol education program, there should be a program fashioned just like it called the national fruit and vegetable consumption program," Rainey said, adding that, while existing campaigns like 5 a Day have accomplished much, it's time to take the next step and "say that our foods have no cholesterol, no saturated fats and are fat free."
Today's American consumers need all the help they can get. Citing figures from the USDA's Continuing Survey of Food Intake of Individuals -- an ongoing survey of 15,000 people -- Rainey pointed out that fruit is consistently ranked the lowest in consumption; vegetables are the third to last.
In the case of fruit, females ages 11 through 50 years should be eating at least three servings a day. Annual consumption ranges from 1.1 to 1.7 servings, she said.
"This is showing that every age group that we broke out and looked at [has] a problem. Everyone needs to double their fruit consumption just to get to what is recommended for their age," Rainey said.
The enormous database was carved up further, with even dimmer results. During the period of January through March, typical fruit consumption among females drops even further in all age groups.
"Doubling fruit consumption is what we found needs to happen in every age segment, across the board, for all Americans," said Rainey. "Eight out of 10 Americans are not getting their recommended servings."
There is also a lack of variety in the types of produce eaten on a regular basis. Rainey's research shows that two-thirds of all fruit consumption is coming from eight primary sources, apples, apple juice, oranges, orange juice, grapes, bananas, cantaloupe and watermelon. Only half a serving a day comes from all other fruits and juices.
To build consumption, Rainey urged the industry to start emphasizing the specific health benefits of those items already in heavy demand as a foundation, and then add variety with new items.
"Consumption across the board has room to improve. Americans are eating fewer fruits and vegetables than Europeans, Canadians and our neighboring Latin American countries," she said. "We are the lowest consumers of fruits and vegetables, so there's a lot of room to improve."
Rainey said that the industry can find strong allies in agencies and organizations that help set and influence public policy. "You cannot find across-the-board anybody who doesn't advise eating more fruits and vegetables, or that they're good for you," she said. "All of this brings us to the educational challenge. We must educate ourselves and our consumers."