Many of us recall our parents hovering over our shoulder at the kitchen table and repeatedly saying, “Eat your fruits and vegetables.” Although they nagged, they were right because when it comes to fruits and vegetables, more matters. Eating plenty of produce helps reduce the risk of many diseases, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and some cancers. Now, a study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health has found eating seven or more servings of these healthy foods per day will ward off the risk of all death-related causes by almost half.

“The higher the intake of fruit and vegetables, the greater the protective effects seemed to be," wrote the researchers, according to the press release. Furthermore, eating more fruits and vegetables was associated with a lower risk of death, overall, and deaths from heart disease/stroke and cancer. The American Heart Association suggests those who have a daily intake of 1,600 to 2,000 calories should get four to five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. However, the average American consumes — without counting potatoes — a total of just three servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

Prior to the latest study, scientific research has shown a modest or no-benefit association with fruits and vegetables and cancer risk. Although a diet rich in these foods has been linked to good health, many of the studies that established this association were conducted on people who were already likely to be health conscious, and tended to only be locally representative of a population.

The team of researchers at the University of Liverpool in the UK sought to unveil if England’s recommended daily portions of fruits and veggies benefits the health of the general English population. They analyzed lifestyle data for more than 65,000 randomly selected adults aged at least 35 or older from the national health surveys for England between 2001 and 2008. The deaths among the sample size were recorded for an average of 7.5 years.

The participants were visited by an interviewer who collected demographic and socioeconomic data, health and health-related behaviors, measures on their height and weight, and even had a nurse to take waist circumference, blood pressure, blood samples, and medication use. On average, the survey respondents ate just under four portions of fruit and vegetables the previous day. During the study period 4,399 people, or 6.7 percent of the sample died.

The findings revealed those who ate at least seven daily portions of fruits and vegetables had a 42 percent lower risk of death from all causes, such as cancer and heart disease/stroke, after excluding deaths within the first year of the monitoring period. However, not all fruits and vegetables are created equal when it comes to their protective effects. Two to three daily portions of vegetable intake was linked to a 19 percent lower risk of death, compared with a 10 percent lower risk for the equivalent amount of fruit, says the press release. Each portion of salad or vegetables seemed to confer a 12 to 15 percent lower risk of death.

Surprisingly for the researchers, a portion of frozen/tinned fruit seemed to increase the risk of death by 17 percent, as they found no evidence of significant benefit from fruit juice, canned, and frozen fruit. Canned fruit products are almost four times more popular than frozen fruit in Europe, according to the CBI market survey for the European Union market for frozen fruit and vegetables.

"Most canned fruit contains high sugar levels and cheaper varieties are packed in syrup rather than fruit juice," said Dr. Oyinlola Oyebode of UCL's Department of Epidemiology & Public Health, lead author of the study, in the press release. "The negative health impacts of the sugar may well outweigh any benefits.”

Due to this finding, the researchers suggest the current dietary guidance, which includes the consumption of dried or tinned fruit, smoothies, and fruit juice as legitimate ways of reaching the “5-a-day” goal in England, might need to be revised. "150 ml of freshly squeezed orange juice (sugar 13 g); 30 g of dried figs (sugar 14 g); 200 ml of a smoothie made with fruit and fruit juice (sugar 23 g) and 80 g of tinned fruit salad in fruit juice (sugar 10 g)...contain a total of some 60 g of refined sugar," they wrote. "This is more than the sugar in a 500 ml bottle of cola."

Overall, the findings imply that even those who meet their recommended quota, may need to eat more fruits and veggies to ward off their risk of death. The study warrants further investigations into the effects of different types of fruit and vegetables. Eating fruits and vegetables is associated with a decreased mortality rate without displacing other foods from a person’s diet.

Source: Gordon-Dseagu V, Mindell JS, Oyebode O, et al. Fruit and vegetable consumption and all-cause,cancer and CVD mortality: analysis of Health Survey for England data. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. 2014.