Why are we so obsessed with carrots, onions, peas and tomatoes?

Variety is said to be the spice of life, but when it comes to veg, it seems the UK population doesn’t agree…

We all know we should eat at least five portions of fruit and veg a day, but do we need to add another rule: eat lots of different types?

Using data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS), the British Nutrition Foundation recently announced shocking statistics: 50 percent of the UK’s vegetable intake is made up of just four types: peas, tomatoes (yes, we know this is technically a fruit), onions and carrots.

We spoke to experts about what this means for our health, the benefits of varying things up a little and how to do this on a tight budget.

Why should you vary your veg more?

“Fruit and vegetables should make up just over a third of the food we eat each day. They provide us with essential vitamins and minerals, as well as fibre, which is important for gut health”, says nutrition scientist Dr Simon Steenson of the British Nutrition Foundation.

“It’s important we aim for a wide variety, including different colours, as each type provides different amounts and combinations of nutrients. Studies have linked eating more fruit and vegetables to a lower risk of several diseases, including developing type 2-diabetes”, he continues.

“Most fruit and vegetables are also naturally low in calories and fat, so having plenty with meals or as snacks can help us have satisfying portions of food with fewer calories”, he concludes.

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What’s missing from the selection?

The four veg do pack a punch when it comes to nutrients and vitamins, according to University of Reading Professor in nutrition, Gunter Kuhnle. “There’s a nice range of benefits. Carrots and peas have good amounts of fibre, carrots have vitamin A, and tomatoes and onions have vitamin C.... I think they’re a nice selection, albeit a bit boring.”

It’s important to eat a wide variety of veg, and there’s one group Professor Kuhnle definitely feels is missing. “They don’t contain any sort of green leafy vegetables, so there should be a bigger source of folate – a dark leafy veg or something like broccoli or sprouts”.

So why do we have such a limited veg palette?

Well, first things first, Professor Kuhnle doesn’t think it’s because we’re lazy or unadventurous: “You get used to foods, and that results in having the same type of dishes, and if people cook for themselves it’s a recipe they know will work”.

Of course, budget is an issue too. Are we willing to spend money on an untried veg and risk making a meal we don’t like?

“Less than a third of UK adults eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day [80g fruit or veg is equal to one portion]. People may find getting more fruit and vegetables into the diet difficult, especially as many may be feeling the financial effects of the coronavirus pandemic”, says Prof. Kuhnle.

Ready to mix it up a bit more?

Want to add another four to the mix? Nutritionist Jenna Hope suggests these budget-friendly options:

Red cabbage: “This is a brilliant, cheap option and it can stretch a long way. Red cabbage is rich in polyphenols which are important for supporting heart health, brain health and gut function too.”

Spring greens: “They are the perfect spring/summer leaves to add to salads or sauté with garlic for a delicious, fresh side dish. They’re rich in iron and magnesium to help support energy requirements.”

Cauliflower: “One of the most versatile vegetables, cauliflower can be used in a range of ways and is another vegetable where one cauliflower will serve many people. Cauliflower contains Vitamin C, magnesium and is a good source of fibre too.”

Swede: “A great alternative to sweet potato if you’re trying to increase diversity. Swede contains vitamin C which plays an important role in energy, immune function and bone health.”

How can you try new fruit and veg cheaply?

“Frozen, dried and canned vegetables and fruit count towards your five-a-day, and can be an easy way to bulk out meals. You can try adding frozen vegetables or a can of beans (which are cheap, low in fat and count for up to one of your five-a-day) to a meal like spaghetti bolognese or curry. You can also look for ‘wonky’ fruit and vegetables, which are cheaper in many supermarkets, or try local shops and markets”, says Prof. Kuhnle.

Don’t feel pressured into buying expensive veg simply because it’s labelled as a ‘superfood’, says Prof. Kuhnle. “I’m sceptical about superfoods, which can be more expensive than regular veg. Rather than saying ‘these are the best and the most healthy foods’, I would rather say to use many different vegetables.

“Vegetables come in and out of fashion – I remember when onions and garlic were extremely popular and there were lots of garlic supplements. I also remember when Swiss chard suddenly became popular, and I thought it was funny because growing up my mum and dad wouldn’t touch it because it wasn’t popular.

“Sometimes someone in the public eye makes an old recipe with a particular vegetable and it becomes popular. Or there’s a clever marketing campaign – a few years back that happened with cranberries and suddenly they were really popular and seen as healthy, but you don’t get the same fuss over a cabbage, which is a great vegetable”, he concludes.

Recipes to switch up your veg

Widening your palate

We might have been put off a veg because we tried it once and didn’t like it. But the key, says Professor Kuhnle, is to try it again and prepare it in a different way.

“I have a young daughter, and when trying new food at first it’s ‘yucky’, then after a few attempts it tastes good. We need to do the same as adults.

“I never liked beans, but I wanted my daughter to. So I tried them, to pretend they’re delicious, and they weren’t too bad. Taste seems to change over time. We need to maintain a curiosity about trying new things and eating them in different ways.

“I grew up on vegetables cooked for two hours ‘for safety’. I hated them! I’ve learned to cook them for a short time so they still have a crunch, and now I like them. It’s usually not a vegetable people dislike, it’s the way it’s prepared.”

Updated May 2022