Food System Transformation #5: The scale needed for our five-a-day

Fruit and veg are high in the nutrients we need. So a diet that has lots of fresh fruit and vegetables is a healthy one.

But what does this mean in terms of scale for, say, the UK population?

The scale of what’s needed for an apple a day
Few people grasp the scale of what’s needed, even though the arithmetic involved is easy,  providing if, that is, you’re careful with all the zeroes involved.

  • Assume nearly all the UK population, let’s say 65.9M people, can and do follow the maxim An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
  • That’s 65.9 billion apples
  • That’s 65.900,000 x 365 apples a year

Here’s a cheery little video illustrating this sum:

  • Yup, it comes to 24,053,500,000 apples a year; i.e. 24 billion plus fifty million or so.

The scale of what’s needed for five-a-day
An apple a day is merely one of the five-a-day portions of fresh fruit and vegetables (FFV) that the UN’s World Health Organisation recommended for a healthy diet, advice endorsed by the likes of Public Health England and the NHS among many others.

  • 24,053,500,000 x 5 = 120,267,500,000; let’s call it 120.25 billion portions of FFV needed for all of us in the UK to have our five-a-day.

What’s much better for us is ten-a-day . . .
There is sound evidence that, although the five-a-day recommendation reduces disease, the greatest benefit comes from eating 800g FFV a day, that is 10 portions a day (see note 3 below).

  • 24,053,500,000 x 10 = 240,535,000,000, call it 240.5 billion or nearly quarter of a trillion portions


  1. Just in case you’re wondering about the 65.9M figure as ‘nearly all the UK population’, it’s the actual population in 2018  (66.4M) when I made the video, minus 0.5M to account for non-apple-eating people, such as young infants and the very ill. Yes, it probably would have been better to have plumped for 66M. But hey!
  2. The first time the five-a-day advice was challenged as being insufficient was in 2014 when this article in the Journal of Epidemiology and Public Health appeared by Dr Oyinlola Oyebode (now at Warwick University, then at University College London) and her colleagues.
    They concluded that that 7-a-day or more gave significantly more benefits; see this UCL press release about the article.
  3. In 2017, a team of researchers led by Dr Dagfinn Aune at Imperial College, London, showed conclusive evidence that, although even the recommended five-a-day reduced disease risk, the greatest benefit came from eating 800g of FFV a day, equivalent to ten portions.
    see their article in the International Journal of Epidemiology, and this Imperial College press release about it.
  4. As you probably know, the UK diet isn’t as healthy as it should be. An NHS survey in 2017 showed only 29% of adults were eating the recommended five-a-day — and the average (mean) was 3.8 portions per day. Fewer men than women met the five-a-day guideline, and young people aged 16 to 24 were also less likely than other adults to get their five-a-day. Perhaps more worrying is that only 18% of children aged between 5 and 15 did.
  5. Even at 3.8 portions a day, nearly 91.4 billion portions of FFV are consumed in the UK, given the 65.9M figure again.
  6. And none of these figures account for FFV waste, some of which is unavoidable (e.g. the inedible part of the product, such as skins or stalks), some not. This paper (by De Laurentiis et al in Waste Management, 2018) gives useful quants on the matter. A relevant finding in relation the above is the avoidable waste per person, estimated at 14.2kg per person per year; i.e. roughly half a portion, say half an apple a day per person.. For the UK population this 14.2kg pp/year equates to 1.7 billion portions; i.e. just  less than 2% of current consumption (see note 5).
  7. Unavoidable waste at a household level is likely to deal less efficiently than an  FFV processing company. The latter operate on tight profit margins, thus will seek value on any ‘waste” though anaerobic digestion or similar. And yes, any such benefit has to be set against the environmental impact of the processing and any ensuing packaging.
  8. The challenges of getting enough FFV to the population is compounded by the fact that profit margins the whole way through the system are a from slim-to-vanishingly small 0-2%.
    • At the level of primary production: Across the world, farmers and horticulturalists can’t make a living. The average subsidy in the EU is 80%.
    • Who knows what will happen to agricultural subsidies in the post-Brexit UK sector? Or to FFV imports from the EU27, currently 75% of which are veg, and over 40% of fruit and nuts?
    • Climate change???

The next blogpost, #6: The fresh produce supply chain, is about how these billions of portions of fresh fruit and vegetables get from farms and into UK shops.


The previous blogposts in this series are:

#4: A new corporate order?

#3: The economic burden

#2: Close to the planet’s carrying capacity

#1: Why this blogpost series

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