With the help of the newfangled Veggie Meter, Niki Bezzant looks at the state of the nation's fruit and vegetable consumption.
A couple of months ago, I watched as a researcher placed my finger into a slightly intimidating-looking machine and turned on a monitor. Then I watched as my eating secrets were revealed on the screen in front of me.
The machine was the Veggie Meter; an innovative new device that is part of a trial at AUT University in Auckland, designed to establish a benchmark of Kiwis' vegetable and fruit consumption, via a fingertip scan.
The machine gives an indication of Vitamin A status by measuring the amount of orange light reflected from the fat pad in the fingertip. This orange light shows a person's intake of carotenoids: plant chemicals that help form Vitamin A in our bodies. The Veggie Meter "score" is an objective measure of vegetable and fruit intake over the past few months. The more coloured vegetables and fruit consumed, the higher the score.
Before being measured in the Veggie Meter, I'd filled in a survey about my intake of vegetables and fruit. I'd tried to be totally honest; I was confident the Veggie Meter would agree with my self-assessed high intake, but I couldn't help but be nervous as the meter moved around the dial. As it turned out, my score was pretty good – above average (phew).
The study shows, though, that some of us might be able to do better. It has revealed that one in five participants has a low Vitamin A status, suggesting they might not be eating enough vegetables and fruit.
The Veggie Meter is part of a larger project, the Bayer Food Focus survey.
The other part of the project was a survey of 1000 Kiwis, to get a snapshot of what and how people are eating.
The survey results are really interesting. Among other things, they mirror what we see with the Veggie Meter; lots of us are not eating enough vegetables and fruit, with only four in 10 respondents meeting the recommended three servings of veges and two of fruit each day.
That might be partly explained by some of the findings about attitudes to food. Reflecting the state of modern life, perhaps, more than half of respondents (52 per cent) agreed with the statement "I am able to cook, but healthy foods are too expensive". And one in three agreed with the statement "I am too busy to prepare meals regularly".
A third of people said they ate out at a restaurant or fast food chain on one or two nights of the week. And 43 per cent of people said they bought a takeaway once or twice a week.
I think it's quite hard to eat healthily when you're not preparing your own food. It's not impossible – but it's tricky. When we eat out, of course, we're handing over the responsibility for our health to someone else: a manufacturer, fast food cook or chef. And their goals are probably not the same as ours. It's rare to find tons of veges – the half a plate we're looking for – in takeaway or restaurant meals.
When it comes to choosing foods to buy, it might not be a surprise that taste was the most important factor for most people, overriding price and healthfulness. Some 81 per cent of people in the survey considered taste to be extremely or very important. Price was rated second, with 67 per cent rating it extremely or very important, followed by healthfulness (half of the respondents).
While at first glance this might seem a shame – why don't we prioritise health more? – I think it's actually natural and, in a way, healthy. Humans are wired to seek pleasure, and food is one of the main ways we do that. Food should be a pleasure, shouldn't it?
The sweet spot is where we really want to get to: food that is both delicious and healthy. That is what I aim for every day. Food that is healthy shouldn't be in a separate category from other food; ideally they should be one and the same. This is the challenge food manufacturers are taking up; they understand the demand for new, delicious healthy foods, and are working to take advantage of this – with mixed results.
But at home in our own kitchens, there's an easy tweak we can make right now to boost the health of our diets, and that's to add more vegetables and fruit. Just think at every meal and snack opportunity: how can I add more plants?
Adding even one serving of vegetables or fruit to each meal will improve your health and have you hitting that 5-plus (with emphasis on the plus) target every day.