Fruit growers need to take on the processed-food industry in the same way that people challenged the tobacco industry a generation ago, Australian nutritionist Dr. Barbara Stanton, told members of the International Fruit Tree Association at their annual conference in Tasmania.

In Australia, as in other parts of the world, poor eating habits have led to serious and expensive health issues, such as bad teeth, obesity, and increasing numbers of people suffering from diabetes. The percentage of overweight children in Australia has risen from 10 percent to 30 percent in two decades.

People are eating fewer fruits and vegetables, but they are consuming more pizza, pastries, cakes, noodles, and sugary confectionary. The stomach is overloaded with junk foods. Why do we eat so badly? It’s a direct result of marketing, Stanton says.

Fifty percent of families eat in front of the television, and 80 percent of the commercials are for junk foods. There is almost no advertising for the foods that people are eating less of. Fruits and vegetables get crowded out by other foods. They are not top of mind.

Processed-food manufacturers are now using Internet marketing to target children, stipulating that they have to buy products to play games.

"It’s an insidious way of getting to kids," Stanton said.

Children now take an average of three junk foods to school in their lunch bags, she reported. By age 16, 60 percent are not eating fruit.

Yet, most people say they like fruit. They understand that they should consume less saturated fat, salt, and sugar, and eat more fruits and vegetables, but they’re not doing it.

"You need to fight against people who are stopping consumption of those products, " she said. "Children are being exploited by fast-food companies."

The processed-food industry doesn’t care about growers, she added. In fact, it would be happy if the fruit industry were put out of business.

"I think you have to stop being so nice and have a go back at them," she said. "You need to take on powerful industries."

The processed-food industry, which profits from people’s unhealthy eating habits, continues to introduce new products, but consumers are not aware of new fruit varieties. In fact, they often prefer old varieties, which they think tasted better.

"Perhaps you need to tell people about new products," Stanton suggested to growers.

Fruit could be marketed as the ultimate convenience food, which comes in its own packaging.

The problem is, growers don’t have the budget to effectively promote their products in the face of so much advertising for unhealthy foods.

But Stanton recalled how the antismoking movement eventually succeeded against all odds. "We talked about the day when people would no longer be smoking inside buildings, and smoking would become a less social habit. We had the vision, and we stuck to our mission, and we worked very hard. We actually got there."

In Australia, only 20 percent of the population smoke today, down from 60 percent.

"It’s a good achievement," she said. "We had no money, and we were up against the tobacco industry that was extremely wealthy and powerful. It was a David-and-Goliath struggle. We didn’t do it overnight. It took time."

Educational campaigns warning of the dangers of smoking worked for a certain part of the population (white-collar males) but had virtually no effect on other smokers.

It took antismoking advertisements to make it clear to people what smoking did to them. Ads for cigarettes were banned. Bans on smoking in buildings made it uncomfortable to smoke in the winter. Eventually, smoking was no longer considered normal.

Just as with the antismoking efforts, medical professionals and nongovernment organizations need to be involved in changing people’s eating habits, Stanton said. No single strategy will work. The fruit industry needs to develop multiple strategies, be tough, and start now.