Of what use is the government-sponsored scheme if it's another way for the food industry to sell more ready meals?
Fruity fun - stawberries, blackberries and blueberries .Even as a full-time, professional eater, I sometimes wonder if the predominant emotion I feel around food isn't one of abject guilt. Sometimes it seems that every object in the fridge should be labelled, not with its fat, salt, and sugar content but some rough and ready index of sin - "This food is so enjoyable you'll need to say 18 Hail Delias to re-establish a state of nutritional grace".Perhaps the dogma that's caused me the most daily anguish is the pervasive '5-a-Day' campaign, led by the government but seized upon gleefully by the food industry and used to beat the poor bloody consumer into a shivering pulp of self-loathing.
I find "5-a-Day" poorly conceived and utterly confusing - and it seems I'm not alone. In research carried out by Tickbox last month (in a sample of 1,347):
Three fifths (of respondents) are unsure what to eat to hit the daily recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables
25% believe orange squash is one portion of fruit
10% think herbs count as a portion of vegetables and 3% believe that chips do
One in 10 women admit to a 'fruit binge' after eating what they consider to be unhealthy food in an attempt to 'balance' their diet
So how should it work? Here's a menu I chose from the wide variety of suggestions offered on the NHS 5-a-day site:
Let's start with some fruit for breakfast: "one medium fruit, such as an apple" ... and perhaps some juice: "A glass (150ml) of 100% juice (fruit or vegetable juice or smoothie) counts as one portion, but you can only count juice as one portion a day, however much you drink. This is mainly because it contains very little fibre. Also, the juicing process 'squashes' all the natural sugars out of the cells that normally contain them, which can be harmful for teeth."
With lunch: "dried fruit: one tablespoon of raisins". With dinner, potatoes don't count as veg so we'll go with "beans and pulses: three heaped tablespoons of haricot beans. Remember that beans and pulses do count, but only as one of the five portions, no matter how much you eat" ... And to finish: "green veg: four heaped tablespoons of kale"
On the face of it, it's easy to get your five a day and even to make it appetising, but I'm entirely baffled about how I'm supposed to shop for and then vary it in an interesting way day by day. I'd need to stock, portion and rotate, at a bare minimum three fresh fruit, four green veg, three kinds of bean or pulse, three dried fruit - more if I wanted to make it interesting.
That makes sense if you're a 60 cover vegetarian restaurant, but not a family. If I had to find ways to combine the recommended five into something interesting it would take all my time and rob cooking for my family of any vestige of joy. And bear in mind, I have time to cook and shop and do it for a living.
It seems counterintuitive but 5-a-day is effectively unworkable if you buy ingredients and cook daily from scratch. It's only once you start factoring in the claims of food manufacturers that it starts to make sense - "This ready-meal contains two of your 'five a day' [plus enough salt to preserve a rotting elk]". I find myself in the bizarre position of being unable to meet a 5-a-day commitment without resorting to prepared foods or juices.
So if I'm confused and the general population are confused, who exactly benefits from the 5-a-day programme? Difficult to say really but it is noticeable that the most strident support for the scheme comes from trade bodies, producers and processors - the research above highlighting the confusion surrounding the scheme, was, perhaps unsurprisingly, commissioned by a large international fruit juice company - one of the many offering a 'solution' to the 5-a-day problem.