They are colorful, healthful and wonderfully plentiful at this time of year, yet somehow fruits and vegetables hold no appeal for an alarming number of Americans.
More worrisome still: Americans may actually be eating fewer vegetables than they did 20 years ago, according to new research, even as health advocates trumpet the disease-fighting prowess of such produce-section stalwarts as yams and broccoli.
The federal Centers for Disease Control, in partnership with the nonprofit Produce for Better Health Foundation in Wilmington, is rolling out a nationwide healthy-eating initiative with an upbeat theme, and a lively logo and Web site. The message is simple: Eat more!
More chard and chickpeas, more beans and berries, more salsa, more salad.
"It's not 'Don't eat this, don't eat that,' it's 'Eat!' " said Mary Kay Solera, health education specialist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
"Fruits and Veggies - More Matters," as the campaign is called, was based in part on input from consumers about the kind of message they'd be likely to heed.
"People know fruits and vegetables are good for them, but they don't want to be preached to, and they don't want to be made to feel guilty," said Elizabeth Pivonka, president and chief executive officer of Produce for Better Health.
More Matters is designed to appeal to a wide audience, taking into account varying tastes, budgets and lifestyles.
"Everything counts: fresh, frozen, canned, dried and 100 percent juice," said Pivonka, a registered dietitian. "We say, get it in any form that you can."
Tomatoes on burgers, raisins in lunch pails, frozen corn and canned black beans stirred into the ground meat on taco night. Every little bit helps.
"The goal is to move consumption up," Pivonka said.
The More Matters logo features a sprightly figure tossing a rainbow of fruits and vegetables into the air. It is already showing up in grocery stores; by fall the campaign will reach classrooms. Promoters hope to reach millions of consumers through an interactive Web site that features an ask-the-expert column as well as recipes, games, tips, contests, and a "Mom2Mom Message Board" (www.fruitsandveggiesmorematters.org).
Produce is getting the star treatment in other places, too. French cooking guru Patricia Wells has just come out with Vegetable Harvest: Vegetables at the Center of the Plate (William Morrow). The Culinary Institute of America chimes in with its vibrantly illustrated new release Vegetables (Lebhar-Friedman Books). And in a recent "Letter from the Editor," Ruth Reichl, the top banana at Gourmet magazine, asks, "Isn't it time to put the joy back into the act of eating vegetables? Isn't it time we began to think of all the grains and greens that grow in the earth as a gift?"
Sure. But many Americans don't, for reasons ranging from cost and convenience to simply not liking the taste. Boredom plays a role, too. Some consumers interviewed by the produce foundation said they were stuck in a rut and needed new ways to incorporate fruit and vegetables. Others admitted to buying fresh produce, then, daunted by the peeling and chopping, letting it sit.
Another culprit: Competition from fast- and snack-food behemoths, which can make nature's best a hard sell.
In a study of more than 23,000 adults conducted between 1988 and 2002, researchers from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and the Welch Center for Prevention, Epidemiology and Clinical Research found that 62 percent ate no whole-fruit servings and 25 percent ate no daily vegetable.
While fruit consumption held steady during the period, vegetable intake dipped slightly. Less than 11 percent of Americans eat the recommended amount of both fruit and vegetables, the study concluded.
"With two-thirds of the U.S. adult population overweight or obese, the implications of a diet low in fruits and vegetables are extensive," wrote study author Tiffany Gary in the April issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
For the last 15 years, the produce foundation has tried to reach consumers with its "5 a Day for Better Health" campaign. It succeeded in raising awareness, Pivonka said, but not in changing eating habits. She is hopeful that a fresh approach, with a simple, positive message, will inspire the public.
The U.S. government's most recent dietary guidelines recommend that adults and active teens consume seven to 13 servings of fruits and vegetables a day (a serving is one-half cup) and children, depending on their age, eat four to 10 servings. More Matters intentionally avoids numbers.
"We knew people would flip if they heard 13 servings," Pivonka said. Her rule of thumb: Almost half of what you eat should be fruits and vegetables.
That means about nine servings, or 41/2 cups a day, for a moderately active woman. To achieve that goal, she might eat a banana at breakfast, a nice-size orange and a healthy heap of lettuce on her sandwich at lunch, cut-up cauliflower for a snack, a salad and a baked yam with dinner, or a bowl of vegetable soup.
Because each fruit or vegetable has its own mix of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals (disease-fighting compounds), the key is to eat a variety of colors.
"It's the synergistic effect that makes fruits and vegetables so beneficial to health," Pivonka said. Bananas, for example, contribute to healthy blood pressure. Artichokes boost the immune system.
More Matters, with its extensive Web site, is aimed at the group Pivonka believes has the power not only to push the immediate goal but also to influence eating habits long-term: mothers of young children.
"Our goal is to get millions of moms on our side," she said. "They're responsible for the family's health."
She's talking about people like Beth Bradstreet of Center City, who, as she wheeled her cart around Whole Foods on South Street recently, talked about strategies for getting her three children to eat a rainbow of colors every day.
"I don't know how much they should be eating," she said, "but I try to give them as much as I can." She packs steamed vegetables in their lunchboxes, and they start dinner with something green of their own choosing. "I give them control, which is really important," she said.
A few blocks away, at the Italian Market, Donna Bridy's tote bags bulged with collard greens, fragrant mangoes, ruby peppers, and a basket of Gala apples - all for $6.
"This is the way to get people to eat fruits and vegetables," she said, citing the bargains. "It's all about cost today; people cannot afford to buy fruits and vegetables at the grocery store."
She and her family of four eat little meat, and get a weekly order of produce through a Community Supported Agriculture buying club. They are the exception.
"Children come to our house and I'll say, 'Would you like some carrots?' and instantly they say no," she said. "In our fast-food nation, it's not a surprise at all."
Marilyn Tanner-Blasiar, a dietitian at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, applauded More Matters.
"The beauty of this new campaign is that it says don't worry about an exact number," said Tanner-Blasiar, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "We need to show people how easy it is."
In her work with overweight children, Tanner-Blasiar gets an inside look at family eating habits. And it's troubling.
"I'm seeing parents who just don't cook at home," she said. "A lot of parents just don't put out fruits and vegetables."
Consuming more fruits and vegetables has many benefits, not the least of which is weight control, said Barbara Rolls, a professor of nutritional sciences at Pennsylvania State University and author of The Volumetrics Eating Plan, a widely praised approach to healthy eating.
"The basis of what we're promoting is to reduce calorie density by adding fruits and vegetables to dishes," she said.
Because fruits and vegetables are high in water content and relatively low in calories, "you get a bigger portion with the same calories," Rolls said. "Adding water to food gives you a greater sense of satisfaction."
Still, no matter how you slice, dice or jazz up fruits and vegetables, not everyone's going to bite. Vegetables are a particular challenge. "Some people just don't like them," Rolls said.
That's not stopping her. She is studying strategies for getting people to eat more fruits and vegetables, especially in their younger years, when life's nutritional preferences are formed.
"We're experimenting with the stealth approach in kids."
Mango, Jicama and Cucumber Salad
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1 cup peeled, seedlesscucumber dice (1/2 inch)
1 tablespoon coarse or kosher salt, plus more to taste
1 cup diced jicama (1/2 inch)
1/4 cup minced red onion
2 cups ice water
1 medium mango (ripe but firm), peeled and diced
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint leaves (optional)
1. Mix the cucumber with the 1 tablespoon salt and let stand for 10 minutes. Rinse; drain and pat dry.
2. Soak the jicama and onion in ice water 2 minutes; drain.
3. In a bowl, combine the cucumber, jicama, onion, mango, jalapeno, lemon juice and oil. Taste and adjust seasoning.
4. Refrigerate. Salad can be made up to 4 hours in advance.
5. Serve cold as a relish, garnished with mint, if desired.
Per serving (based on 8): 59 calories, no protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 4 grams fat, no cholesterol, 26 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Tomato, Avocado & Roasted Corn Salad
Makes 8 servings
4 ears corn on the cob with husks attached
1 teaspoon salt and as needed
6 cups mesclun lettuce mix, rinsed and dried
3/4 cup Chipotle-Sherry
Vinaigrette (recipe below)
3 red beefsteak tomatoes, sliced 1/4 inch thick
2 avocados, pitted, peeled and cut into slices
1 medium red onion, sliced thin
1 cup small-dice aged Cheddar
2 teaspoons black pepper
1. Roast the unhusked corn in a 400-degree oven or on a hot grill until kernels can be pierced easily with a fork, about 45 minutes. Remove from oven; cool completely.
2. Shuck the corn. Cut kernels from cobs. In a bowl, toss the corn with 1 teaspoon salt. Assemble at once. Or, to use later, cover and refrigerate for up to 12 hours.
3. To assemble the salad, toss the mesclun mix with 1/4 cup of the vinaigrette. Mound the dressed lettuce on a chilled platter or divide on individual plates. Arrange the tomato, avocado and red onion slices over the mesclun. Sprinkle with diced cheese and the reserved corn. Drizzle with remaining dressing to taste. Season with salt and pepper. Serve at once.
For the Chipotle-Sherry Vinaigrette: In a medium bowl, mix 3 tablespoons sherry vinegar, 1 tablespoon each fresh lime juice, minced shallots, chopped cilantro and parsley. Add 1 teaspoon chopped thyme, 2 drained and minced canned chipotles, 1 minced clove garlic and 1 teaspoon maple syrup. Gradually whisk in 3/4 cup olive oil until dressing thickens slightly. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.
Asparagus & Crab Salad With Asian Dressing
Makes 8 servings
For the Dressing:
3/4 cup fresh lime juice (about 6 limes)
1/2 cup fish sauce (see Note)
1/3 cup sugar
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 or 2 jalapeno chiles, minced
1 tablespoon minced peeled gingerroot
Freshly ground black pepper
For the Salad:
11/2 pounds asparagus (about 30 medium-thick spears), trimmed, cut on diagonal into 11/2-inch lengths
1 package (3.75 ounces) bean thread or cellophane noodles
1 pound crabmeat, picked over
1 carrot, grated
2 scallions, white and tender green parts, chopped
4 cups arugula or watercress
4 cups mesclun or baby lettuce
1/3 cup chopped peanuts, toasted
1. For the Dressing, mix the lime juice, fish sauce and sugar in a bowl; stir to dissolve the sugar. Stir in the garlic, jalapenos, gingerroot and pepper, to taste. Set aside.
2. For the Salad, steam the asparagus over boiling water until just tender-crisp, 4 to 5 minutes. Drain. Plunge the asparagus into ice water to stop the cooking. Drain.
3. Soak noodles in boiling water for 5 minutes. Drain.
4. Add 1/2 cup dressing to noodles. Toss to mix; set aside.
5. In a large bowl, mix the crab, carrot and scallions. Add 1/2 cup dressing; toss gently to mix. Refrigerate for 15 minutes or more, allowing flavors to blend.
6. Just before serving, mix the arugula and mesclun in a large bowl. Add a few tablespoons of dressing; toss to mix. Line a platter or serving plates with the greens.
7. Arrange the noodles over the greens, top with the crab mixture, then the asparagus. Sprinkle peanuts over top. Pass the remaining dressing at the table.
Per serving: 199 calories, 15 grams protein, 30 grams carbohydrates, 12 grams sugar, 3 grams fat, 44 milligrams cholesterol, 1,612 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.
Contact staff writer Julie Stoiber at 215-854-2468 or firstname.lastname@example.org.