Eating at least five portions of vegetables and fruit a day could reduce the 150,000 deaths from heart disease by between 20 and 30 per cent, said Professor Michael Marmot, Britain's leading cardiovascular epidemiologist.
But vegetables have a poor image, and are seen as "boring, unappetising and difficult to prepare", according to two reports from the National Heart Forum, an umbrella group of heart charities, medical bodies and disease prevention groups.
Britons eat on average three portions of fruit and vegetables a day, a third as much as the Greeks (who top the European league), and less than eight other European nations. The UK's death rate from coronary heart disease is the second highest in Europe, only Ireland's is higher. The French have the lowest, followed by the Spanish, Italians and Greeks.
Doctors do not know what ingredient in fruit and vegetables confers protection against heart disease, but suspect it might be the antioxidant effect of vitamins C, E and beta carotene.
Vitamin pills do not work as well, however. Professor Marmot said that the answer to our death rate lay in the vegetable rack, rather than the medicine cabinet.
"The picture which emerges from the epidemiological studies of antioxidants - from both dietary sources and pills - is mixed. None of the long-term trials of antioxidant supplements [has] shown a reduction in heart disease deaths," Professor Marmot said.
The good news is that it does not matter how you eat your vegetables, as long as you eat them. "Whatever shape or form we wish to eat them - fresh, frozen, dried or canned - vegetables and fruit can only do us good," said Imogen Sharp, director of the National Heart Forum.
"Vegetables and fruit are poorly promoted. A total of pounds 71m is spent annually in the UK advertising confectionery, contrasting with only pounds 2.9m for vegetables and fruit," she added.
Ms Sharp said that children and people on low incomes, as well as regions of low consumption, must be the focus of the national strategy. Low income households have the highest rate of heart disease, she said.Reuse content