Global stategies to improve the diet of the world's population continue with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) unveiling a 'unified approach to promote greater consumption of fruit and vegetables'.
Potent figures from the World Health Report 2002 estimate that low fruit and vegetable intake could cause some 2.7 million deaths each year, and was among the top 10 risk factors contributing to mortality.
Annoucing the figures at the annual meeting of the WHO Global Forum on Noncommunicable Disease (NCD) Prevention and Control in Rio de Janeiro, Dr Pekka Puska, WHO Director, NCD Prevention and Health Promotion, said: "There is strong and growing evidence that sufficient consumption of fruits and vegetables helps prevent many diseases and promotes good health, but large parts of the world's population consume too little of these." For Kraisid Tontisirin, director of FAO's Food and Nutrition Division the "FAO faces the challenge to increase worldwide awareness of the health benefits of increased fruit and vegetable consumption. To effectively promote more consumption of fruit and vegetables, prevailing diets need to be more systematically assessed for their nutrition and health implications."
Mahmoud Solh, director of the FAO Plant Production and Protection Division, agreed: "Accelerated national initiatives are required to produce and efficiently market more affordable horticulture products using less pesticide and with fewer losses in the post harvest handling," he said.
Noncommunicable diseases account for almost 60 per cent of global deaths, and 45 per cent of the global burden of disease. Unhealthy diet, together with physical inactivity and tobacco use, are among the key preventable risk factors for NCDs. Sufficient daily intake of fruit and vegetables could help prevent major NCDs such as cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, obesity and certain cancers, said the WHO this week.
The joint fruit and vegetable promotion effort is being developed within the framework of the Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health. This effort is being developed in collaboration with other global partners, including national "5-a-day" type multi-stakeholder organisations, which promote fruit and vegetable consumption.
A recently published report of a Joint FAO/WHO Expert Consultation on Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases recommends the intake of a minimum of 400g of fruit and vegetables per day (excluding starchy tubers such as potatoes) for the prevention of chronic diseases including heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Eating a wide variety of fruit and vegetables helps ensure an adequate intake of most micronutrients, dietary fibres and a host of beneficial non-nutrient substances, say the two UN agencies. Increased fruit and vegetable consumption can also help displace excessive consumption of foods high in fats, sugars or salt.
However, according to the FAO statistical database, the total supply of fruit and vegetables is far below the intake minimum target in many countries, especially in Asia, Africa and in Eastern and Central Europe.
"Despite the fact that developing countries produce a lot of the global supply of fruit and vegetables, and that possibilities for improving production in these countries are good, many people in the developing world do not eat enough. Consumption is also often low amongst lower socio-economic groups in developed countries," said Dr Puska.
Low fruit and vegetable intake is estimated to cause about 31 per cent of ischaemic heart disease and 11 per cent of stroke worldwide. The WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) estimates that the preventable percentage of cancer due to low fruit and vegetable intake ranges from 12 per cent for all cancers, and up to 30 per cent for upper gastrointestinal tract cancers.
The joint fruit and vegetable promotion effort has four specific objectives - to increase the overall awareness of the role of fruit and vegetables in preventing NCD, to increase fruit and vegetable consumption through essential public health and agricultural action, to encourage and support the development and implementation of national fruit and vegetable promotion programmes, which are 'sustainable, comprehensive, and which engage all sectors', and to support research in 'relevant areas and develop the human resources required to design and implement fruit and vegetable promotion programmes'.