The benefits of a diet high in fruits and vegetables are well-documented and include reduced risks of heart disease, some cancers, stroke, diabetes, and, based on new studies, cataracts.

But promoting these benefits has taken a back seat to other food groups, some of which may not be as healthy.

“Fruit and vegetable promotion is way down the list in marketing dollars spent (on food items),” says Elizabeth Pivonka, president of the Produce for Better Healthy Foundation, a non-profit organization created to promote benefits of fruit and vegetables.

Pivonka discussed the opportunities for produce marketing during the opening session of the Texas Produce Association's annual Conference and Trade Show recently in San Antonio.

She says only 2 percent of food marketing funds support the produce industry. “We don't get much help from the government either, only 4.5 percent of promotion funds from USDA. That's inconsistent with the role fruits and vegetables play in healthy diets.”

Pivonka says the United States spends 1,000 times more on treating diseases than it does on preventing them. Adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables, five servings per day, she says, will improve health.

The five-a-day program is key to the foundations' promotion efforts. Pivonka says the need has never been more critical.

“We have a high number of Americans who are overweight or obese,” she says. “And one of seven children is overweight.

That's two times the rate of 20 years ago. The Center for Disease Control concludes that obesity is at epidemic levels in this country.”

She says a diet high in fruits and vegetables offers one of the best methods of combating obesity, as well as related health problems.

“With five servings a day, incidence of some cancers is reduced by half, compared to only one or two servings a day.”

Birth defects also may decrease because of the folic acid contained in fruits and vegetables.

“And new research indicates that cataracts may be less with adequate fruit and vegetable consumption,” she says.

She includes diabetes and osteoporosis as other diseases that can be reduced with five servings a day of fruits and vegetables.

Pivonka says that despite the paltry amount of money being spent on promoting produce, the five-a-day program has made an impact in the past ten years. “It's not as fast as we would like, but the program has had a steady impact,” she says.

She's also convinced that more can and needs to be done. “Produce for Better Health is a catalyst for change,” she says.