(Sept. 24) SALINAS, Calif. — Public awareness of the health crisis in America is giving fruit and vegetable pro-ducers a ripe opportunity to reach consumers and dramatically boost consumption.

But be forewarned, said Carl Keen, chairman of the department of nutrition at the University of California-Davis.

“The clock is ticking, and you only have a small amount of time to take advantage of the opportunity,” Keen told a lunch audience Sept. 22 at the National Steinbeck Center.

If producers wait too long, competition could come from an unexpected source — pharmaceutical companies.

“Pharmaceutical is in trouble,” Keen said. “There are no blockbuster drugs coming down the pike. And it costs a billion to $1.5 billion per launch. They can’t afford that. So they’re targeting food. They want to tailor nutrients to individual health. That’s your competition.”

The concepts of nutrition and health are changing throughout society, Keen said. For example, the last two hires in Keen’s department were for experts in nutrition and toxicology.

And the University of California, Berkeley, just combined its departments of nutrition and toxicology. Univer-sities, Keen said, see the two as inextricably linked.

Keen, in fact, was just back from a conference of the Atomic Energy Commission in Vienna, Austria, where the topic was not, as one might expect, nuclear reactor security in a time of terrorism.

Instead, it was about whether metals in food were safe for women of reproductive age.

Researchers, Keen said, are increasingly examining all foods and discovering what chemicals in them are bene-ficial or harmful, in what amounts and for whom.

And that can vary by age, gender and ethnicity. Other factors include environment, lifestyle, reproductive status and presence of disease.

“Genetics is a biggy,” he said. “And it has to be if we are now worrying about diet as a solution to health.”

CHANGING PERCEPTIONS

The food industry certainly has made strides to eradicate diseases over the years, he said. Keen pointed out that in the U.S., scurvy and rickets are almost eliminated and that improved diets have also reduced spina bifida and cleft palates.

But public perception of diets is changing from mere prevention of deficiency-related diseases to reduction of cancer risks, age-related infirmities and birth defects and the increase of endurance and mental faculties.

Two years ago, the National Agricultural Biotech Council Report even argued that because of the increasing cost of medication, the country would have to blend health practices with food and diets, he said.

“Within four to five years, pregnant women will be told not only what to eat for a healthy pregnancy, but what to eat to ensure a long, healthy life for their children,” Keen said.

And the changing approach to medicine, nutrition and diet means more than just potential consumption boons for fruit and vegetable producers, Keen said.

It means keeping on top of research. It means encouraging commodity boards to pair together to fund research into specific phytochemicals such as lycopene. And it means combating the conflicting information that consum-ers get.

For example, last year a study said flavonoids, something found in produce items, could hurt fetuses, Keen said.

National Public Radio picked up the story, and commentator Paul Harvey even said that perhaps pregnant women should restrict their intake of fruit.

“And there was no answer by the fruit and vegetable industry,” he said.

Keen pointed out that in this case, it was only a chemical found in onions, but that message was not conveyed.

He pointed out that research shows that because of genetics, only 40% of women decrease their risk of breast cancer by eating more fruits and vegetables. But that doesn’t mean the rest of them shouldn’t increase consump-tion as well.

OTHER FACTORS

The produce industry can acknowledge statistics like these and then show why other factors come into play that make increased consumption worthwhile, he said.

“I actually think there are huge opportunities,” Keen said. “But I don’t think they will be realized without em-bracing the new technologies.”

And in a global marketplace, there’s another reason to work with the new technology and the focus on the re-lationship between genetics and nutrition, Keen said.

It is something that should help give American producers a jump on global competition. Countries like China aren’t nearly in the position to do so that domestic producers are, Keen said.

Evolving concepts of health require watchfulness
Carl Keen, chairman of the department of nutrition at the University of California, Davis, says the clock is ticking on the opportunities for food producers to take advantage of the healthful benefits of food.