/ Food & Drink, Health

Can we trust foods that claim to provide one of our five-a-day?

Do you get your five-a-day with fresh fruit and vegetables or ready meals? Do you think a processed meal counts towards your recommended intake? With a lack of government clarity on the issue, it’s difficult to know.

As the government has yet to specify the criteria for when foods are allowed to carry five-a-day claims it’s left up to food manufacturers to decide whether the food you’re eating should carry a claim or not.

The official grocery group – the Institute of Grocery Distribution – has put together guidance for its members on the issue, but this means a product can show the five-a-day logo even if it’s only half a portion’s worth.

Half marks for half portions

At Which?, we think products should have to contain at least one portion of fruit or veg to get the stamp of approval. We also want robust criteria for how much fat, sugar or salt it can contain if it’s going to be promoted as good for you and stamped with a five-a day logo.

We’ve shared these differences of opinion with the Department of Health, but it has yet to come back to us with a set of official criteria for what counts.

Until the government decides, it appears it’s down to food manufacturers to call the shots. But do you trust food companies to decide what counts towards your quota?

Off to the chopping board

Although I appreciate that some ready meals count towards your fruit and veg intake, I personally prefer to get my intake with fresh produce. It’s pretty obvious where you stand with a piece of fresh fruit or veg.

But that’s not where the confusion lies; we need to know if products that market themselves as ‘healthy’ for containing one or two of your five-day really do cut the mustard.

A discussion thread on the NHS website shows some confusion over what officially counts as fruit and veg, let alone whether it counts as your five-a-day. If we’re struggling with the fresh stuff, what hope have we for prepared meals and takeaways?

Phil says:
17 June 2012

I have never thought for a second that a ready meal contained anything nutritious at all.

Every ready meal has nutritional information on the packet.

It’s a strange world where the government has to decide whether or not a food product satisfes some criterion so that it can carry a logo, and we stress out if the government finds it difficult to do this as quickly and comprehensively as we should like. Obviously, the government should not be doing this ludicrous micro-management of our food labelling – it is ill-equipped to handle the predictable repercussions of such involvement. Which? has drawn up some excellent criteria. It should publish them and challenge manufacturers to adopt them. Those that do can use the logo [and face the legal and reputational consequences if their claims are found to be false]. Some manufacturers might choose to abstain from, or nit-pick over, such a scheme or to draw up their own scheme independently or in alliance with others. But only the Which? criteria would carry any authority and no reputable company would alienate itself from such a disinterested, responsible and trusted standard.

Sam Gibson says:
17 June 2012

5 a day is a implied health claim when attached to branded products. Which? would be in breach of the EU Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation if it were to endorse products in this way. Criminal penalties attach – at least from 14 December. It will also be a criminal offence to claim that drinking water reduces the risk of dehyrdation. Since tap water is not free, presumably that recommending that too will be a criminal offence. Interesting times.

Phil says:
18 June 2012

The “5 a day” claim is general health advice and not covered by the regulations. Which? would only be in breach of the EU regulations (which have been around since 2006) if they published unauthorised claims in a commercial context, ie they were paid or rewarded for doing so.

Water claims covered here:-


Sam Gibson says:
18 June 2012

Phil — where 5 a day is public health message you are correct. However where it is a ‘commercial communication’ it does come under the Regulation and DH have determined that a commercial communication is one that attaches to a branded product, not where payment/reward is necessarily involved. Therefore if anything packaged wishes to carry the 5 a day claim/logo it will need to be accompanied by a claim from the register after 14 December. May also need to be an Article 14 claim since ‘They can help reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and some cancers’ comes under that category. http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/5ADAY/Pages/Why5ADAY.aspx

I was under the impression that FSA/DH were aware some time ago that this would impact the 5 a day commercial licensing scheme. Still embarrasing though.

What a potty world we live in! If putting a logo on a packet that effectively says “This conforms to the Which? idea of what counts towards the five-a-day fruit &veg advice” requires all this bureaucratic and legislative fancy dancing then we have lost the plot completely.

How many a day do other countries advocate?

Jen says:
19 June 2012

It appears that Five a Day is the UK standard advice. I havent been able to find the evidence base for five a day, where is it? and in the US its seven for women and more for men, how can our evidence base be so different. Where’s the mismatch?

I have not seen any compelling evidence to support ‘five-a-day’ and because of the big differences between the nutritional and fibre content of different fruit and vegetables, there is probably limited scope to support the recommendation. I am not surprised that the US and UK recommendations are different.

Filling up on fruit & veg helps cut down the amount of meat and fish we eat. There is evidence that eating large amounts of meat (particularly red meat) is not good for us. Meat and fish are expensive, and producing them is wasteful of resources, never mind the ethical issues about meat production.

Although I would be happier if the NHS did more to help us understand the nutritional content of individual foods, I recognise that ‘five-a-day’ is a simple message that may do good and is unlikely to do harm. I would like to see an NHS campaign against food supplements, which are generally of little use, are a waste of money and can sometimes be harmful.

Phil says:
19 June 2012

If I get a chance I’ll try and look it up but I believe the medical advice to HM Government was 7 a day but that they downgraded it to 5 becasue they considered 7 would be unrealistic, too demanding if you like.

I agree, Phil. The well known Eatwell Plate includes some junk food, not because it is beneficial but because it acknowledges that most of us will eat some junk. The US equivalent does not include the junk, making it an unrealistic goal – like many strict diets.

par ailleurs says:
19 June 2012

I look on advice to mean ‘ eat as much fresh, seasonal fruit and veg as you can when it’s available’. At the times of the year when it’s not I don’t eat as much. My diet always includes vegetable matter and cooked as little as possible to make it palatable, even enjoyable. When the season dictates that it’s the time to eat brassicas and roots, that is what I do. In the late summer into autumn I eat huge amounts of fruit and veg.
For the rest, I like e.g. sprouts in the winter and prefer them to imported stuff that is grown on the other side of the world. Ditto summer means loads of raw things and lovely juicy fruits. I’m not fanatical and will eat anything occasionally but that is my basic way. It works for me, it’s much cheaper and it’s more fun devising interesting ways of preparing seasonal produce. Ready meals are for emergency use only as far as I’m concerned. Whatever they claim to do, they’re not anywhere near fresh produce. Manufacturers have and will always find weasel words to make their food sound better than it really is.

Jenny says:
19 June 2012

Letting people think they will get sufficient nutrients, including fibre, with a balanced diet including 5 portions of fruit/veg a day is unethical if the number of daily portion numbers should be higher. If 5 a day is not evidence-based, and like Wavechange I suspect it isn’t, then something is seriously amiss when public policy misleads. Some people make great efforts to consume five portions and have a right to be aware that this may not be sufficient.

Though I don’t believe for a minute that ‘five-a-day’ has an accurate scientific basis, it is an easy way to get over the message that fruit and vegetables have an important role in our diet. The significance of the vitamins, minerals and fibre they contain greatly depends on what else you eat. If you eat a modest amount of meat, fish, potatoes and wholemeal bread or cereal, you are probably getting much of what you need in your diet.

A better message might be to eat two or three portions of fruit AND two or three portions of vegetables per day. Overdo the fruit and you could be consuming rather more sugar than is good for you. Hopefully we all know that drinking pints of Coca Cola will is likely to make you fat but the same applies to fruit juice. A little is good for you but in excess it’s not much better than Coke.

I believe that we are recommended to consume a MINIMUM of five portions of fruit & veg a day, so it’s not a problem if you have more, as long as you don’t overeat.

Food manufacturers have been known to be a little dishonest about labelling their packets, which is why they are now required to specify the percentage content of the ingredients mentioned in the product name.

As Charlotte says, it is not right to label a product containing half a portion of fruit & veg as containing a full portion. If companies are to be trusted to use the ‘five-a-day’ label then I suggest that the number is always rounded down and not up. It is time to take a stand against the constant cheating and deception by companies, whether that relates to food labelling or ‘contracts’ that can rise in price.

I never think of a ready meal as having nutritional value. Although they can be tasty – too tasty sometimes – I always imagine them to be packed with chemicals and all the things that are bad for us, such copious amounts of salt of sugar.

If I am having a ready meal for dinner, as opposed to something home cooked, I just always try to have fresh fruit or veg during the day. I would love to be able to rely on and trust the food producers, but the sad fact is, I don’t and I doubt I will be able to any time soon.

With ready meals it is easy to see what they contain. It is not difficult or time consuming to serve ready meals with vegetables or salad. Unfortunately, the fat and sugar content of ready meals is largely as a result of what people like to buy, and healthy options are not always shoppers’ top priority. Furthermore, some traditional home-made food can also be very high in salt, sugar and fat content.

Anyone with basic knowledge of nutrition will be able to produce better food than if they rely on ready meals, but that depends on motivation and time. There is no doubt that leading a stress-free life and getting plenty of exercise are good, but we don’t all manage that. Maybe the best way forward is to admit that ready meals, used in moderation, can be part of a healthy lifestyle (or the best we are realistically likely to achieve).

My big weakness is portion size. I will select ready meals after reading the pack carefully, add my own vegetables or salad and then read that I have just eaten the contents of a pack containing two servings. 🙂

BenJie says:
21 June 2012

Charlotte. Will you be publishing the Department of Health response? Is Which considering it’s own five a day logo scheme? I think consumers would welcome a scheme that has your endorsement whether it is your own or endorsing some other such scheme.

Hi BenJie,

We haven’t considered putting together our own 5-a-day logo. From our point of view it is a little too specialist as a campaign and would involve a lot of resources to monitor and ensure manufacturers were using it correctly, resources which we unfortunately don’t have.

If another scheme were to appear that met the criteria we recommended to the Department of Health (the food had to contain one portion of fruit and veg, and to be used on foods that were low in sugar, fat and salt) then we would consider endorsing it in the same way that we have supported and endorsed traffic light labelling.

Of course we want it to be easier for people to eat a balanced diet and to consume fruit and vegetables. But we feel there is a danger in people thinking they can get all their portions from processed food, firstly as it’s not sending the correct healthy eating messages, and secondly because often processed foods are high in sugar, fat and/or salt.

I would like to know about the quality of fresh food and veg. We are told they do not have as many nutrients as in the past and this is said to be still declining so information on this is vital if we are to know how many portions we need.

Basil says:
21 February 2013

I would appreciate if Which? could compile a database of foods which contribute towards the 5aday, with a focus on ‘value for money’.

I assume a portion of Brussels Sprouts provides one of the 5; 200g (before trimming) costs about 40p these days.

My packet of dried dates says that 3 whole dried dates provide one portion, this probably costs less than 10p.

Oranges cost as much as 50p each (one portion?) – how much orange juice would I need to match this? Or fruit squash?

Obviously the 5aday need to be different, and you would not want the same 5 each day; however it would be helpful to know the best value for money options so that those of us on limited budgets could eat healthily.

Such a database would provide some interesting press releases focusing on nutritional issues in times of austerity.

I think we are getting hung up on the mantra of 5 a day. Most survived pretty well before these edicts were issued. My view is that a common sense balanced diet with fresh vegetables, fruit, meat and dairy products together with, if you like, quality ready meals and very limited processed food will keep most people heathy. A cook book and a slow cooker could help a lot of people who have missed out on learning from their parents. Just don’t live on processed and cheap junk food – you can’ be sure what its origins are.

We talk a lot about the problems of eating processed food but I wonder if this is any worse than the sausages, pies, processed meat, white bread and canned vegetables that many people used to eat. I wonder how many ate five-a-day fifty years ago. At least obesity was less of a problem in these days.

I think about fruit and veg when I do the shopping rather than on a daily basis. It’s easy for me because I’m single and I eat what I buy. Like Malcolm, I try to have a balanced diet but know enough to be aware that it does not matter if each meal or even each day is balanced, as long as overall my diet is reasonably balanced. Having said that, I think the five-a-day guideline is useful to provide us with an idea of how much fruit and veg we should be eating.