Brussel sprouts and other produce at a grocery store in Fairfax, Virginia, on March 3, 2011. (Source: USDA Photo/Lance Cheung)We should eat even more vegetables than our governments— and moms— said. But the bennies are bigger than was once thought, too. A recent study found that eating (an admittedly daunting) seven (or more) servings of veggies and fruits a day extends life by what the authors bill as a “staggering” 42 percent.

The study found the effect applied to death rates for heart disease, cancer and “all causes,” was cleanly dose-responsive, and applicable across economic backgrounds. Vegetables extend life better than fruit; fresh extends life better than canned.

“This is obviously an important paper, which strengthen[s] the recommendations to eat fresh fruits and vegetables,” physiologist Luc Tappy of the University of Lausanne told Bioscience Technology via email. Tappy was not involved in the paper.

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center epidemiologist John Potter, also via email, agreed: “This paper is a useful addition to what we know about the relationship between vegetable and fruit consumption and mortality, including mortality from both cardiovascular disease and cancer.” Potter was also uninvolved in the study.

The paper’s lead author, University College London public health specialist Oyinlola Oyebode, commented via email: “I was surprised at the strength of the effect and the clear dose-response, with each group's survival curve extended beyond the previous group.”

The paper, published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, found that the more fruits and vegetables we eat, the less likely we are to die at any age. This tops the recommendations of many, if not all, governments. The United States Department of Agriculture currently advises one to two cups of fruit and one to three cups of vegetables a day. In the UK, the advice is “five a day.” Australia was the only country doing it just right, with its recommendations of two cups of fruit and five cups of vegetables.

The team, led by the University College of London, used the Health Survey for England to look at the diets of 65,226 people— who were representative of the UK population— between 2001 and 2013. They found that eating seven or more portions of fruits and vegetables reduced the risk of cancer by 25 percent and heart disease by 31 percent. Fruit juices and smoothies had no effect. Frozen and canned fruit were associated with decreased mortality. 

There are caveats, however. “It is not new, as the authors themselves note,” says Potter. “But it will calm the fears of those who worry (including, apparently these authors) about whether all the data we have comes from ‘unrepresentative’ populations. In my opinion, and in the opinion of many others, this is a strange and misplaced worry when it comes to understanding human population biology.”

Nevertheless, Potter adds: “Seeing a dose-response relationship for all mortality, cardiovascular disease (CVD) mortality, and cancer mortality in this setting adds something to what we know and further strengthens the recommendations we made in the 1997 AICR/WCRF reportand that were also made in the subsequent 2007 report.”

Potter was international chairman of the 1997 AICR/WCRF report.

Tappy added that the new paper raises, however, “an additional, important question.”

“Sugar, and more specifically fructose, is associated with some adverse metabolic effects, such as dyslipidemia and hepatic insulin resistance,” he noted. “In this regard, it is interesting to note that, in this study, benefits look much stronger with vegetables than fruits, and that canned fruits have even opposite effects. It suggests that beneficial effects of fruits may be balanced by their fructose content. It also indicates that fructose from fruit ‘behaves’ like that of added sugars.”

Tappy concluded: “In this regard, one wonders whether a recommendation to limit total sugars (i.e. also including fruits, not just added sugars) to a maximal amount (may be about 50 grams of fructose, or 100 grams of total sugars) AND of having at least two fresh fruits per day, would be justified. It looks [sounder] to me than the actual recommendations focusing just on added sugars. The special issue of health effects of fresh fruit juices without added sugars remain to be addressed, however.”

Emailed Oyebode: “I think the next step is to have a better look at the types of fruit and vegetables that are most beneficial to health, particularly examining fruit juice, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables. And to examine the best ways to change behavior to increase consumption of fruit and vegetables by the population.”

One way or another, je suis désolé, Cookie Monster.