Fruit and vegetable producers heard leading academics in health and nutrition attending last week's joint Stockbridge Technology Centre/Horticultural Development Company conference warn of an obesity epidemic that threatens to bankrupt the NHS.
Head of academic endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism at Hull York Medical School Professor Stephen Atkin told the conference - convened to thrash out strategies for increasing consumption of fruit and vegetables in the UK - that the estimated annual cost of obesity to the economy is £3.5bn, 18 million sick days and 40,000 lost years of working life.
He said obesity made individuals two to three times more likely to suffer from cardiovascular diseases, more than three times as likely to suffer from type 2 diabetes and at greater risk of cancer.
Meanwhile, Professor Janet Cade from the University of Leeds' nutritional epidemiology group meanwhile warned that on current trends, by 2050 more than a third of boys aged between six and 10 and more than a third of girls aged 11 to 15 would be obese.
With government campaigns to encourage greater consumption of fresh produce under fire in recent weeks for failing to halt a further decline in vegetable consumption during 2008, Cade outlined the challenge for the fresh produce industry when she highlighted that for every £1 spent on promoting healthier diets, the food industry spent £500 on promoting its "unhealthy foods".
Meanwhile, promotion of vitamin pills has confused the picture further. "There is robust evidence that fruit and vegetables have global benefits on your health that you cannot get by replacing them with pills and tablets," said Atkin.
Despite the challenges, the conference heard that progress is be-ing made in finding new ways to change eating habits - particularly among children and in school-based environments (see below).
"The evidence is there that if adults model behaviour their children will copy it," said Cade, adding that children can learn to prefer foods made available repeatedly in small amounts for them to taste.
- Stockbridge Technology Centre is to follow up this conference with a second - Health Claims for Fruit and Vegetables: The Facts - on 23 June. It will include sessions on how to steer a health claim for a product through the European Food Safety Authority and a variety of talks illustrating the evidence case for health claims for specific crops. For a free place, email firstname.lastname@example.org.