Despite government efforts to promote healthy diets, a new study from Rabobank, New York, NY, reports the decline in consumption of fruits and vegetables in the U.S. and Western Europe.
Published by the Rabobank's Food & Agribusiness Research and Advisory team, the report finds that despite efforts by governments to promote the benefits of a healthy diet, consumption of fruit and vegetables in Western Europe and the U.S. has declined over the past decade. Rabobank cites lower incomes and perceived price increases, alongside strong competition from processed and convenience foods, as the major factors driving this trend. The report suggests that producers, processors and retailers must explore ways to inspire greater consumption of fruit and vegetables if the industry is to flourish.
Cindy van Rijswick, Rabobank analyst, commented, "The challenge for the fruits and vegetables industry is to close the gap between what consumers say they want and what they actually do. Surveys have shown that, in principle, consumers are positive-minded about healthy eating, but in practice they are easily swayed by creative marketing of processed food and beverages and exhibit a strong bias for convenience products."
On a household level, there is a clear relationship between income and fruit and vegetable intake, meaning that in a tough economic climate, consumers become more susceptible to fluctuations in price. This impact can be exacerbated by the common misperception among consumers that unhealthy food is cheaper to eat than healthy food. Between 2006 and 2011, in both the EU and U.S., average consumer prices for fruits and vegetables in fact increased less than prices of the total food category, but consumption levels fell.
Processed foods have become a strong competitor for fruits and vegetables for different reasons, such as availability, taste, marketing, product range and convenience. Even when consumers do opt for a healthy choice, they will likely select processed foods in the "health and wellness category" over a fresh option (despite the fact that research has found that two-thirds of U.S. and half of all European products referencing fruit on their packaging contained no or only trace amounts of fruit). It is extremely difficult for the fresh produce industry to match the sophisticated marketing efforts of processed health foods as most fresh products are sold unpackaged and unbranded.
Rabobank suggested three ways in which the industry can invest and evolve in order to boost consumption levels:
1. Reducing inconvenience: Convenience is often cited as a barrier to consumption of fruits and vegetables, a claim that is supported by the increasing popularity of prepared (i.e. washed, cut, diced, sliced, and packaged) products. The industry must continue to find innovative ways to boost convenience, e.g., offering chopped vegetables that can be heated directly in the microwave without removing packaging.
2. Marketing based on more than health benefits: Most consumers are already aware that fruit and vegetables are good for them and governments are the best vehicle for promoting the benefits of a healthy diet. Therefore, the industry should focus on informing consumers about the convenience, taste, enjoyment, and versatility of fruits and vegetables
3. Better cooperation along the supply chain: Keeping inferior quality products off the market is crucial to securing consumer buy-in. Short dedicated supply chains in which the brand owner is in control can enable partners to work together more closely to improve basic features, such as quality and freshness (e.g., by reducing the time to market or choosing the tastiest varieties).