Food Science in the News – Death and Freggies

Would you believe eating 7 servings of fruits and vegetables (“freggies”) a day can reduce your risk of death by 42%? This stat comes from research by the University College of London and, while it bugs me when news headlines use extreme terms like “death” to catch attention (see below*), this research on mortality and freggies is worth discussing.

*(see “Food Allergies and Murder”)

Green-Eyed Insight on Risk of Dying and Freggies

This study was published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. It’s available online through Open Access (meaning you get to read the whole research paper, free) so if you’re interested you can access it here:

Fruit and vegetable consumption and all-cause, cancer and CVD mortally

If you just want the press release, you can read this article by Food Product Design.

Actual pile of papers I had to grade as grad student TA
Actual pile of papers I had to grade as grad student TA

This research paper is packed with helpful statistics like a blueberry is packed with antioxidants. During grad school it’s normal to have to plow through heaps of papers like this one. After a while you learn what details to look for, like a lifeguard reading body language at the beach or a runner on first base reading the pitcher to determine whether or not to steal. The most notable details of this paper are as follows:

1. Adjustments for age, sex, social class, BMI, alcohol consumption and physical activity.

Many mortality studies will control for smoking, financial/social status and age, but this study actually considered physical activity too. Let’s say Bob eats 7 servings of vegetables a day and Rob only eats 3 servings a day. Now let’s say that Bob dies first (sorry). What? But he ate more vegetables! Turns out that Bob never exercised at all and Rob does 60 minutes of cardio 3 times per week. These details can mess up the data if you were trying to prove vegetables can decrease your risk of dying.

Table 2 of this study shows that increasing fruit and vegetable consumption decreases one’s risk of death from any cause. If two people are normal weight, non-smokers with the same BMI, age, social class, physical activity and alcohol intake, the one who eats more fruit and veggies is most likely to live longer. Even people who are overweight can reduce their risk of dying from any cause by increasing fruit and veggie consumption.

2. Fruit versus Vegetables

One of the drawbacks of the “5 a Day” campaign is that eating 5 fruits is not quite as good for you as eating 5 vegetables. I’m sure there are exceptions; as my brother likes to say, “Knowledge is understanding that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.” Just looking at portions of vegetables and dying, this study found that consuming greater portions of vegetables significantly reduced risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cancer deaths. Just looking at portions of fruit and risk of dying, there was no significant benefit from eating fruit. Don’t write off fruit entirely: risk of dying did decrease with increasing fruit intake, but the differences were just not statistically significant.

3. Fresh, Raw, Frozen and Canned – it matters

I grew up on canned veggies and I maintain that canned and frozen vegetables are better than no vegetables at all. I’ll never forget how mortified I was when I went to a friend’s house and her mom served grilled artichokes. I had absolutely no clue how to eat the thing, having only seen it from afar in the grocery store. My mom hates vegetables so I had very little exposure to them until I got to college. I remember calling my mom to tell her about the mess hall’s delicious mix of carrots and white broccoli (which I later learned was cauliflower).

I thought it was an art display. Nope, vegetables...from outer space?
I thought it was an art display. Nope, vegetables…from outer space?

Some people just are not vegetable eaters. For that crowd, frozen, canned or pre-seasoned steamer bags might be the only way vegetables make it into their diets. This study looked at how eating different types of freggies changed the risk of dying. They found that fresh vegetables, salads and fresh and dried fruit showed stronger health benefits (decreased risk of dying) than canned and frozen fruit. In fact, canned/frozen fruit (not canned/frozen veggies) was associated with an INCREASE in the risk of dying.

Canned green beans – okay; Canned pears — not-so-okay

The authors of this study pointed out that most canned fruit contains high sugar levels, and admitted it was impossible to separate the frozen fruit from the canned fruit in the calculations for risk of death. It would be interesting to see future studies separating those two categories to clear this new stigma on frozen fruit. Let this be more evidence that limiting added sugars can only improve your health, but also remember that the dosage makes the difference between a poison and a cure.

Bottom Line

This is a great study, and despite all the factors that complicate the calculations of someone’s risk of dying, this research only adds to the proof that eating vegetables could save your life.

Related Posts:

Food Allergies and Murder

High Protein Diets Increase Risk of Mortality as Much as Smoking

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