Lost in translation

by Josh Sosland
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CHICAGO — Difficulties associated with translating fruits and vegetables in processed foods into the government’s recommended intake levels were among challenges explored in an Institute of Food Technologists panel discussion, "What constitutes a fruit or vegetable serving?"

The panel presentation led by Tara McHugh, Processed Foods Research, research leader, of the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Albany, N.Y., was held July 30 during the I.F.T. Annual Meeting and Food Expo.

Despite years of seeking to raise fruit and vegetable consumption, 85% of Americans still fail to consume five servings per day, Ms. McHugh said. With 90% of consumer food spending going to processed foods, Ms. McHugh said it stands to reason these foods should be probed as a vehicle for fruit and vegetable delivery.

The goal that food processing companies should pursue in incorporating fruits and vegetables in their products should be to help consumers who don’t consume enough fruits and vegetables gain the health benefits of consumers who do, said Eric Hentges, director of the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion of the U.S.D.A.

"The bottom line is that you should develop products that retain beneficial properties of fruits and vegetables," Mr. Hentges said.

The current understanding of the mechanism of those benefits is limited, Mr. Hentges conceded. Still, higher intakes of fruits and vegetables are strongly associated with reduced incidence of chronic disease.

Questions about how processed foods may incorporate health claims about fruits and vegetables were explored in a presentation by Elizabeth Pivonka, president of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, Wilmington, Del.

To qualify to put the foundation’s materials on packaging, criteria must be met for sweetener limits (including concentrated juice), sodium and fat limits as well as for minimum levels of fiber content.

Questions remaining to be answered include whether cooking a fruit or vegetable may lower the required amount to constitute a serving since volume often decreases with cooking. How concentrated puree should be counted and whether powders/flakes should be counted also need to be resolved, Ms. Pivonka said.

One factor discouraging consideration of allowing the claims for powders is the expected use by the supplement industry.

"We want fruits and vegetables to be eaten as food, not as pills," Ms. Pivonka said.

What is a serving?

A complication in assessing the incorporation of fruit and vegetables, is the significant discrepancy in serving definition between government agencies, said Julie Moss, a consumer safety officer with the Food and Drug Administration, Washington.

Discussing the F.D.A. standard for nutrition labeling, Ms. Moss said the agency’s Reference Amounts Customarily Consumed (R.A.C.C.) rarely match the serving sizes of the U.S.D.A.

She also noted that while the F.D.A. has established serving standards for canned fruits and vegetables, it has not done so for fruit and vegetable fillings for processed food products.

Robert Earl, senior director of nutrition policy, The Grocery Manufacturers/Food Products Association, Washington, said the food industry embraces the objective of increasing fruit and vegetable intake. As evidence, he noted that the industry in recent years has introduced 4,000 new products targeting health and wellness, a figure he said is expanding to 10,000 when products currently in the pipeline are included.

Echoing the concerns of others, Mr. Earl noted the differences between MyPyramid servings and R.A.C.C., suggesting the industry was focused principally on MyPyramid, which he said provides a "solid basis for establishing a serving." Still, he said it was important to find ways to take advantage of the broad ways in which fruits and vegetables may be incorporated into processed foods, including juices, concentrated purees, dehydrated flakes and powders and fresh fruits and vegetables.

Other issues raised by Mr. Earl include understanding the nomenclature for the term fruit or vegetable or the appropriate representation of fruits and vegetables in the context of a processed food product. He said industry and government also must be mindful of what consumers understand and what consumers want.

The latter point was similarly made by Olusola Lamikanra, a researcher with Frito-Lay, Plano, Texas, who emphasized his company’s interest in delivering value to consumers and maintaining credibility.

The incorporation of fruits and vegetables into processed foods is based on consumer research indicating 90% want healthier snacks and 50% say they are trying to eat healthier snacks. Many say it is too hard, Mr. Lamikanra said.

In addition to the various forms mentioned by Mr. Earl, Mr. Lamikanra offered fruit and vegetable fiber as a promising source, suggesting that perhaps the fiber and juice could be combined to constitute a serving. He asked whether volume is the best way to measure servings but added the importance of giving industry a simple approach.

Sympathizing with the challenges described by the panelists was Richard M. Black, vice-president for global nutrition and chief nutrition officer of Kraft Foods Inc., Northfield, Ill.

"We’ve wrestled with these issues for a long time at Kraft," Mr. Black said. "We don’t know what aspects of fruits and vegetables are key for health, but we know that vitamins and nutrients alone don’t cover it."

Mr. Black described a system at Kraft of looking for various "markers" of the ingredients and then measuring their presence in the finished food product. As many as 10 markers may be used. Whichever marker is present in the lowest proportion versus the raw ingredient would dictate how much more of the ingredient is added, he said. So if a marker is present at 50%, Kraft will double the amount of the ingredient included to try to assure the physiological effect of a serving, he said.

Responding, Mr. Hentges was encouraging, adding that he would like to see supporting data.

"Markers seem like a logical approach," he said.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, August 7, 2007, starting on Page 42. Click here to search that archive.

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