FRUIT AND VEGETABLE CONSUMPTION AND PRODUCTION
Most people recognize compelling reasons why fruits and vegetables would, could, and simply should become a larger part of the American plate. Increasing fruit and vegetable consumption is great for our health. The fruit and vegetable sector has been a leader in engaging environmentally aware consumers with offerings that are certified organic, locally produced, low in greenhouse gases, or some combination of these qualities. In their 2018 forecast of food and beverage trends for restaurants, the consultants Baum and Whiteman listed “the rapid consumer shift to ‘plant-based’ foods” as the #1 trend of the year for 2018.
However, our interest in eating more fruits and vegetables is not yet showing up in the hard numbers reflecting the current total national consumption and production. This sobering fact has appeared consistently across multiple sources.
Per capita food supply data from the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) describes how much food is available from production and net imports. In 2015, the most recent data available, the American food supply offered a per capita annual total of 632 pounds (fresh weight equivalent) of total fruits and vegetables, barely higher than the previous year. A decade earlier, in 2005, the corresponding per capita annual total was much higher, at 684 pounds, so long-term trends have not been favorable. The downward trend from 2005 to 2015 is observed separately for fruits and vegetables, and it is observed whether or not one uses USDA’s loss-adjusted estimates to account for food waste. Using data from multiple rounds of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) from 1999 to the most recent round, a 2016 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that Americans had made many improvements in the healthfulness of their food intake—more whole grains, less sugar-sweetened beverages, and a higher total diet score, for example—but no significant improvement in daily consumption of fruits and vegetables.
Though one frequently hears that prices or U.S. agricultural production constraints are to blame, neither of these potential barriers provides a fully persuasive explanation. For potatoes, the largest vegetable by volume, U.S. production rose from 2005 to 2015, but exports also increased, so per capita availability for consumers fell. The total land area assigned to other fruit and vegetable crops is smaller and not increasing much. In the Census of Agriculture, conducted once every five years, U.S. farmland use fell by more than seven million acres from 2007 to 2012 (a decline of just under one percent). During this time, vegetable production fell by 0.2 million acres (a decline of about four percent). Simultaneously, farmland for soybeans, which are heavily used in meat production, grew by 12 million acres (an increase of 19 percent).
All things considered, demand constraints rather than supply constraints are most limiting for U.S. fruit and vegetable consumption. While most people recognize the terrific benefits of increased fruit and vegetable consumption, these opportunities have not yet come to “fruition.” As the December 2016 report in Nation’s Restaurant News on food trends for 2017 observed, “There’s a lot of talk of cauliflower becoming the new kale, and of spiralized zucchini replacing pasta, but the bottom line is that Americans say they’re interested in eating more vegetables, but they’ve shown that they’re not going to give up on taste to do it.”
Over the past year, culinary professionals continued to find new ways to make fruits and vegetables more popular and easier to choose. From redesigning menus to the rapid spread of plant-forward concepts like grains, greens, and protein bowls topped with an array of vegetable and fruit toppings and condiments, the restaurant industry is moving produce towards the center of the action. In 2017, The Wall Street Journal even reported that “bowls are the new plates” as bowled items increased by 31 percent on U.S menus since 2010.
Consumer trends are clearly indicating a growing interest in plant-forward and vegetable-centric eating patterns. In 2018, many chefs are offering more vegetables on menus, and those options are often being met with a positive response from diners. In a study sponsored by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Fresh Produce Centre, researchers showed that simply increasing vegetable portions while decreasing protein portions on plates served in restaurants resulted in increased consumption of vegetables, with no change in customer satisfaction. But beyond this swap example, more effective strategies and new ideas are needed to lead a substantial change in our diets, because so far these early trends have yet to show up in national databases.
At a high level, chefs and foodservice operators have two simply ways to influence consumers’ attitudes around fruits and vegetables: use more of them, and make them more appealing.
It’s no longer enough to offer only one vegetarian entree consisting of pasta or roasted vegetables, or an afterthought fruit salad for dessert. Vegetables have begun driving single menus and entire operations, from fine dining to fast casual, showing their wide creative and entrepreneurial potential. Consumers seeking to eat more fruits and vegetables generally know about these restaurant concepts; it is likely that they will continue to proliferate, since the trend is far from peaking, and in the process these establishments may grow diners’ interest in a wide variety of preparations and ingredients. In operations that are not labeled veg-centric (which is still the vast majority), chefs should look for inspiration among those menus and seek to create dishes tailored to their customer base that nonetheless use a wider range of produce in more exciting preparations. Attention to menu labeling that offers the same amount of details when it comes to vegetables as to other types of dishes or components will also contribute to diners selecting them because they feel equally special; spices, condiments, and cooking techniques are all elements that can be added to vegetables’ descriptions to make them more enticing. Beyond adding more vegetable dishes on menus and more vegetables as a garnish around an animal protein, chefs can also use blended dishes, from burgers (beef with mushroom) to mashes (potatoes with cauliflower) to cake (chocolate with beet), to enable diners to eat more fruits and vegetables in every dish.
Americans are shifting to healthier diets, with many chefs and operators elevating the role of produce on menus. While upticks in actual produce usage are still modest, aspiration is clearly growing on the part of much of the dining public.
- Food supply data and food intake data both show little change in consumption of fruits and vegetables.
- Interest is rising, motivated by goals for public health nutrition, food production and the environment, and profitable innovation for the food retail and restaurant sectors.
- Americans are shifting to healthier diets, with many chefs and operators elevating the role of produce on menus. While upticks in actual produce usage are still modest, aspiration is clearly growing on the part of much of the dining public.