The results of a study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health suggest that we should be eating at least seven portions of fruit and vegetables a day.

Recommendations for how many portions of fruit and vegetables people should eat varies from country to country. “Fruit and veggies – more matters” is the key message in the US, while Australia adopts a “Go for 2 + 5” slogan that encourages people to eat five vegetables and two pieces of fruit a day.

In the UK, where the new study by researchers from University College London (UCL) was carried out, the Department of Health recommends “Five-a-day.”

But the findings of the new study are so persuasive, that the authors are pushing for the UK Department of Health to rethink their recommended intake of five-a-day.

“We all know that eating fruit and vegetables is healthy, but the size of the effect is staggering,” says lead author Dr. Oyinlola Oyebode, of UCL’s Department of Epidemiology & Public Health.

Dr. Oyebode and her team analyzed lifestyle data from annual national health surveys for England between 2001 and 2008. The data of more than 65,000 randomly selected people aged 35 and over went into the study.

On average, survey respondents reported eating just under four portions of fruit and vegetables the previous day. During the monitoring period of the study, 4,399 of the tracked people (6.7% of the sample) had died.

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Eating 2-3 portions of vegetables a day was linked with 19% lower risk of death, while an equivalent intake of fruit only provided a 10% lower risk of death.

The researchers worked out what effect fruit and vegetable intake had on the respondents’ risk of death. They found that people who ate at least seven portions a day had a 42% lower risk of death from all causes.

The seven-a-day group specifically also had a 31% lower risk of death caused by heart disease and stroke, and a 25% lower risk of death from cancer.

Vegetables seem to offer more protective benefits than fruit. Eating 2-3 portions of vegetables a day was linked with 19% lower risk of death, while an equivalent intake of fruit only provided a 10% lower risk of death.

The researchers found that the protective benefits of fruit extend to fresh and dried fruit, but not frozen or tinned fruit, which actually increased risk of death by an alarming 17%. The researchers hypothesize that the added sugars in processed fruit are behind this jump in risk.

The study also did not detect any significant benefit from fruit juice.

“I am not sure why there was no direct benefit found from fruit juice,” Dr. Oyebode told Medical News Today. “Certainly fruit juice is full of micronutrients and currently in the UK we are advised that we can count up to one portion of fruit juice towards our five-a-day.”

Other experts have suggested that due to the lack of fiber and high sugar content in fruit juice, it should no longer be considered healthy. Our results do suggest that fruit juice doesn’t offer the same health benefits that fresh and dried fruit offer and this may add weight to the opinion that it should not count toward the five-a-day.”

Consequently, Dr. Oyebode argues that the UK’s five-a-day guideline – which also includes tinned fruit and smoothies as valid components of the diet – needs to be revised.

However, Dr. Oyebode told us that the Australian “Go for 2 + 5” guideline may not be effective in the UK, as currently the majority of UK adults already eat less fruit and vegetables than recommended in the UK five-a-day guideline.

She identifies some other policies that national and local government could use instead to increase fruit and vegetable consumption:

  • Working to ensure access to fruit and vegetables (“There are sometimes few shops selling fresh produce in deprived areas, so-called ‘food deserts,'” said Dr. Oyebode)
  • Working with retailers so that cheaper fruit and vegetables are prominently displayed
  • Regulation or monitoring of school food contracts to ensure that children are exposed to and develop a taste for fruit and vegetables
  • Regulation or monitoring of workplace catering contracts
  • Negotiating with fast food providers to include a piece of fruit with each meal as standard.

“I am not a policy expert,” Dr. Oyebode said, “but we know that health education tends to be followed by people who already take good care of their health. Those who are most vulnerable, most disadvantaged and most at risk are probably not currently eating five-a-day and will not eat more just because the government changes its message to seven-a-day.”

Recently, Medical News Today reported on research demonstrating that updated US Department of Agriculture guidelines on school lunches had resulted in a significant increase in fruit and vegetable consumption in American students.