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There's a gap over portion sizes

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A new study on the consumption of fruits and vegetables might have had the unintended effect of showing that Americans and their government do not agree on portion size.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report last week saying Americans can buy the seven recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables for $1 or less and as little as 64 cents. Costs were based on 1999 prices.

The consumer price index for fruits and vegetables indicates that they would be 10% higher for 2004, bringing the minimum cost to 70 cents a day. That's still a steal, says Joanne Ikeda, co-director of the Center for Weight and Health at the University of California-Berkeley.

But the expense of produce is often blamed for the fact that most Americans don't eat the three servings of fruit and four servings of vegetables a day called for in the USDA's food-pyramid nutrition guidelines.

And the USDA finding flies in the face of widely publicized anecdotal evidence that it's expensive to eat healthfully.

Portion size appears to be at the heart of this disparity. According to the USDA, a serving of fresh fruit or vegetables is just a half a cup, a serving of juice is three quarters of a cup and a serving of leafy greens is a full cup. So although $1.48 a pound might seem expensive for fresh apricots, it works out to almost six servings at just 25 cents each.

A salad that has a cup of Romaine lettuce, a quarter-cup of sliced onions, half-cup of cucumbers and a quarter-cup of sliced carrots costs 43 cents and provides three servings of vegetables.

But that's not what most Americans think of as a portion, says New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle. Unfortunately, consumers, the USDA and food manufacturers have different visions of the single serving, she says.

''Everyone eats a whole banana, not a half cup. Nobody eats a half-cup of melon. A typical chunk of watermelon takes care of fruit servings for the day,'' she says.

The truth is more likely that people tend to think in terms of dollars per calorie, Nestle says. ''Five dollars will buy you five hamburgers or a salad, so vegetables seem like this incredible luxury because they don't fill you up.''

Even so, Ikeda says, fruits and vegetables are a great buy. ''They're inexpensive compared to things like potato chips, corn chips, high-fat things and fast food.''

No matter where you fall on portion sizes, the good news is that it might not be that hard to eat the recommended quantity of fruits and vegetables. ''When a serving is only a half a cup of a cooked vegetable, that's completely doable,'' says Susan Bowerman of UCLA's Center for Human Nutrition.

''People go to the store to buy fruit and it may look expensive, but they don't realize how much they're getting to eat,'' says Jane Reed, the agricultural economist who wrote the USDA report. ''They may not want to pay 90 cents a pound for apples, but they're getting six servings in a pound.''

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.


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