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Is the Daily Recommended Serving of Fruits and Vegetables a Ploy by Big Produce?


Referencing the recommended daily number of fruit and vegetable servings has got to be one of the most questionable marketing tactics there is. At what point of its processing does a fruit cease to count toward the serving total? Exactly how much sugar can you add to a cucumber before it loses its mystically nutritious qualities?

These are significant questions to answer, because nearly every company that slangs an ostensibly healthy fruit- or vegetable-rich item — from V8 and Naked Juice to Jamba Juice and Fruit by the Foot — will market their most processed and waistline-expanding offerings as nutritious based solely on the fact that they contain some quantity of a fruit or vegetable (or some approximation of a fruit or a vegetable) that qualifies as one or more servings that can satisfy the Department of Agriculture’s recommendation.

At what point is the USDA recommendation simply a Trojan horse through which a legion of detrimental sugar is being smuggled into your system?

Where do recommended foods and serving sizes even come from?

Do you remember that chart that listed four food groups — fruits and vegetables; meats and proteins; grains; and dairy — when you were growing up? Well, at the time that the famous “Basic Four Food Groups” were being installed in 1955, the general population of the U.S. had been operating for nearly 15 years with a “Basic Seven Food Groups” that were listed by the USDA in 1941. Some of the seven categories are shocking in retrospect:

  1. Green and yellow vegetables
  2. Oranges, tomatoes and grapefruit (or raw cabbage and salad greens)
  3. Potatoes and all other vegetables and fruits
  4. Milk and milk products 
  5. Meat, poultry, fish or eggs (includes beans, peas, nuts or peanut butter)
  6. Bread, flour and cereals
  7. Butter and fortified margarine (with added vitamin A)

Now, we need to consider the era in which these recommendations were being made. Through these suggestions, the federal government was preparing the general population of the U.S. — many of whom were still living on the nation’s six million farms — to maintain optimal health during wartime. This list appears to have been put together to prioritize the consumption of vitamin C and vitamin A, which would be the logical justification behind lumping oranges, tomatoes and cabbages into the same category, and also stressing the vitamin A fortification of butter and margarine.

Again, in 1955, the Basic Seven was trimmed to a Basic Four, which prompted Thelma Porter, the head of the Department of Home Economics at the University of Chicago, to express her distrust of the process behind the creation of official food intake recommendations. “I tend to agree with a simplification of the Basic Seven,” Porter told the Miami Herald. “But any plan should not be subservient to agriculture or food processors. I’m not so sure the Agriculture Department is not subservient to its constituency in the present plan.”

Even then, those in the know were sensitive to how the meddling of private industry might influence grocery purchasing decisions.

I see. So private industry has been working in cahoots with the government to pull the strings on food recommendations for a long time.

Yes, which is why dairy received its own category during the revision from seven groups down to four — the health justification questionable at best. Then the USDA introduced the food pyramid in 1992, which provided us with serving quantity recommendations in each of the groups.

Was there something wrong with this pyramid?

Is the Pope Catholic?

Let’s play a game using one food variety per group to keep things simple: Our bread group item will be a piece of whole wheat bread; our vegetable group item will be a tomato; our fruit group item will be a banana; our meat group item will be chicken breast; and our dairy group time will be 2 percent milk. We’ll take the highest suggested serving quantity for each item.

After you’ve eaten 11 pieces of bread, you’ve got 660 calories in your system. Four servings of tomato boosts that number to 780. Four servings of banana pushes us to 1,180. Three servings of 2 percent milk gets you to 1,540. Three servings of chicken breast puts the final number around 1,850. 

Here’s the problem: We just maxed out all of the serving recommendations on the list at the highest USDA recommended levels, and we barely covered the basal metabolic rate calculation for a 5-foot-9, 170-pound man, which is the number of calories a man of this size would burn if he slept all day and did absolutely nothing.

Plainly stated, a lot of people — primarily men — could maximize their consumption of everything on this chart, and their otherwise healthy bodies would completely waste away. 

Whoa. That’s scary.

It is. That’s why you need to be careful about blindly following government recommendations when it comes to food allocations. Even if we presume that sticking closely to the prescriptions of the food pyramid would somehow result in a person receiving their essential vitamins, I’m sure most would agree that it’s far more critical to consume macronutrient quantities from food that are sufficient to prevent yourself from disintegrating.

What is the basis for recommending that much fruit and vegetable content?

It all boils down to micronutrients, and specifically vitamins. That’s really all the argument could rationally be built upon, because most vegetables lack enough calories to make a sufficient dent in your food intake requirements, and most fruits would fill you up long before they did anything similar. Honestly, could you imagine sitting down and eating four apples in a row? 

Here’s the thing: If you’re eating enough food, and you’re taking a daily multivitamin, you probably don’t need to pay close attention to the number of fruit and vegetable servings you’re ingesting. Otherwise, if a Naked Juice fulfills several notches on the recommended fruits and vegetables ranking, so does a serving of Aussie Cheese Fries, a Domino’s Pizza and a slice of Key Lime Pie. We all know that when a grease-soaked appetizer or a sugar-infused pie wedge makes its way to the table, we’re not doing ourselves any favors by eating them. But we have a harder time distinguishing between something being healthy or unhealthy when it comes delivered in juice form.

Just remember this: If it tastes like dessert, it’s probably bad for you. That doesn’t mean you should never consume it, but don’t be under any illusions that it’s somehow good for you. No matter what you try to tell yourself about your food from the neck up, the truth will always be felt from the neck down.