Produce Variety Helps Diet Variety!

Jul 20, 2016 | Food and Nutrition | 0 comments

The Dirt:

How has our produce selection evolved? New produce lends itself to a diet with more variety. Year round availability plus the desire for a healthy diet has given new life to basic fruits and vegetables. 

Our choices and varieties of fruits and vegetables has expanded.

Early in the 20th century, what people ate in the U.S. primarily depended on their heritage and traditions, where they lived, what they could grow, and how much money they had.
Fruits such as oranges and bananas were a special treat compared to the role of “lunchbox staple” that they play in our diets today. While heritage and tradition can still play a role in what Americans eat, recent USDA research on food choice and store proximity found little evidence to support the correlation between where one lives and what one buys at the grocery store.
Meaning, the average American diet is no longer restricted by local or seasonal produce. Because of our expanded choices, the fresh produce Americans eat today is not the same as it was 100 years ago. There has been a considerable change in the commodities we enjoy year-round. Prior to the turn of the century, many produce items were primarily available only in season – i.e., blueberries, kiwi, papaya, persimmons, pineapples, raspberries, and miscellaneous tropical fruits. Other commodities such as mizuna and kohlrabi, although common outside the U.S., were virtually unheard of until recent years!
Dirt-to-Dinner welcomes contributing writers Susan Leaman and Diane Wetherington. Both women have extensive experience and knowledge in the food industry. Susan works with companies and associations to develop solutions that address produce-related food safety issues; and Diane is CEO of iDecisionSciences, LLC, a provider of specialty crop consulting services, and iFoodDecisionSciences, Inc., a software solutions provider for the food industry.

This is not to say we don’t still enjoy the same fruits and vegetables we did in 1970!

While we have integrated new produce into our diet regimen, it is safe to say, old habits die hard. In 1970, three vegetables – lettuce, tomatoes, and potatoes – were the most consumed fresh vegetables in the US.
(Figure 1).
Figure 1. Per capita fresh vegetable consumption, 1970 and 2013
Source: USDA, Economic Research Service, Food Availability Data. The USDA data on more than 200 commodities is used to estimate per capita consumption in the U.S. ERS annually calculates national supplies available for domestic consumption by summing domestic production, beginning inventories, and imports and subtracting exports and ending inventories. Per capita consumption estimates are calculated by dividing national supplies by the total U.S. population.
The latest USDA statistics for 2013 show that these same three commodities are still the leading fresh vegetables consumed in the U.S. However, we have expanded the produce diversity of these three popular veggies. Between 1970 and 2013, there were changes in the amount of potatoes and the different types of lettuce available, as well as an increased variety of other vegetables incorporated into the average American diet.
For example, after a peak in the late 80s/early 90s, by 2013 head lettuce consumption declined 51% while romaine and leaf lettuce consumption increased 69%. U.S. consumers also ate more broccoli, cucumbers, onions, and peppers during this same time frame. Still, even with our preference for new lettuce types and increased consumption of other vegetables, our preference for lettuce, tomatoes, and potatoes stayed relatively consistent.

We have retained a strong preference for certain fruits.

In 2013, American’s  fruits of choice were bananas, melons, apples, and oranges. Our fruit preferences were the same in 1970 (Figure 2). In the 43-year time span, consumption of avocados, bananas, cantaloupes, grapes, pineapples, and strawberries increased while consumption of apples, cranberries, peaches, and plums declined. In recent years, robust demand for avocados, blueberries, cherries, lemons, limes, mangoes, papayas, and pineapples has been driving growth in fresh fruit commodities. USDA analysts attribute this growth in fruit use to preparation of traditional dishes by a more ethnically diverse population as well as heightened interest in a healthy diet.

In recent years, robust demand for avocados, blueberries, cherries, lemons, limes, mangoes, papayas, and pineapples has been driving growth in fresh fruit commodities. USDA analysts attribute this growth in fruit use to preparation of traditional dishes by a more ethnically diverse population as well as heightened interest in a healthy diet.

There are various interactive graphs illustrating the changing American diet from 1970 to 2012/2013.  See the’s website , and articles in  Scientific American and Time magazine’s articles.

Not only have there been changes in the diversity of what Americans eat, but there has also been an even greater change in when we eat fresh produce. Prior to the turn of the century, the majority of the U.S. population was eating strawberries for one, two, or if you were lucky, maybe three months of the year. Now eating fresh strawberries year-round is commonplace, as is noted by the 320% increase in per capita consumption from 1970 to 2010. And it is just not strawberries – the same is true for blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, pineapples, cantaloupe, and a litany of other fruits and vegetables.

So why the increasing diversity in our produce?

Today, we as consumers are spoiled. If a new food is “discovered”, it can be easily stored and transported to most every place in the country. Prior to the modern conveniences of refrigeration; land, air, and sea shipping methods; and well-developed and maintained transportation infrastructure (i.e., highways, airports, rails, and ports), transporting fruits and vegetables outside a local growing region was difficult, if not impossible.

To help meet the growing demand for fruits and vegetables, plant breeding has resulted in new varieties of popular produce items with increased yields, extended growing seasons, improved product quality fruit, and enhanced shelf-life. Tomatoes and strawberries are two prime examples of fruits where year-round availability is a direct result of breeding new varieties.

Suppliers have also improved shelf-life and product quality during transportation by modifying harvesting methods. A good example of these improvements can be seen with the banana which bruises easily when it is ripe. Bananas used to be harvested after ripening until growers discovered they could harvest unripe, green bananas and ship them all over the world without damaging the still firm unripe fruit.

These are just a few of the factors contributing to changes in our food availability over the years. Interestingly enough, a 1959 article on the American diet published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition notes that “the most noticeable change in the diet has been the increase in variety of foods and the lessening of seasonal differences.” So these changes are not new and have been evolving over time. However, in addition to improved transportation and advances in food preservation technologies, the authors also attribute dietary changes to “the influence of very effective advertising methods which persuade the housewife to try new products.” Contemporary analysis of American dietary changes occasionally discusses the effect of advertising on food choice; however, we no longer make a claim about the role of housewives in dietary changes!

The Bottom Line:

In the U.S. and most of the developed world, we are fortunate to have a large selection of fresh produce available thanks to new and improved varieties, harvesting methods, preservation technologies, and transportation.

As food ingredients fads continue to expand produce options, our diets become more diverse—however, that does not mean that we discard the original staples. Old and new produce now “work together”, giving our diets more variety! 


Bentley J, Perez A. 2015. Fresh fruit makes up a growing share of U.S. fruit availability, Amber Waves, May 4, 2015,

Bentley J. 2015. Potatoes and tomatoes account for over half of U.S. vegetable availability. Amber Waves, September 8, 2015,

Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, 8th Ed.

State of the Plate: 2015 Study on America’s Consumption of Fruit & Vegetables, Produce for Better Health Foundation, .

USDA. Economic Research Service, Food Availability (Per Capita) Data System,