Why the French aren’t eating quite as healthily as you thought

The French might have a reputation for eating freshly-prepared, well-balanced meals but a new report has revealed eating habits in France are getting less healthy.

Why the French aren't eating quite as healthily as you thought
Photo: Flickr
But it seems these stereotypes aren't quite as true as they might once have been, according to a new study by the French national agency of food and health safety ANSES
The study published on Tuesday, which comes out every seven years, shows that:
  • The French are eating too many pizzas, quiches and industrial ready-meals
  • French people aren't eating enough fibre and taking in too much salt
  • The French are turning in droves to food supplements to complement their diet
  • They are eating more raw meat and fish, which comes with “risks”
  • AND – their fridges are not cold enough!

And as result of worsening dietary habits it's no surprise that obesity is on the rise in France.

The number of 15-17 year-olds classed as “obese” has risen by six percent since 2007 and for adults obesity levels have gone up by five percent.

Overall, 55 percent of French men and 47 percent of French women are either overweight or obese due to changes in diet as well as lifestyle factors, such as the fact that people tend to be more sedentary, making the issue something of a public health crisis.

Like many other Western nations a big part of the problem is that the French are increasingly falling prey to the temptation of ready-made foods, something people don't usually associate with France.

Nevertheless, the popularity of pizzas, quiches, sandwiches and industrially-made ready meals that are full of salt, sugar and additives, and require nothing more than a quick blast in the microwave is on the rise. 
The French food you love but should really steer clear of
Photo: Alpha/Flickr
In general, the French aren't eating enough fibrous foods, including vegetables, fruits and pulses, like beans and lentils.
The report also notes the explosion in the consummation of food supplements, perhaps to make up for their increasingly bad diets.
Whether it's for weight issues, colds, joint pain or digestion problems, more and more French are turning to vitamins, minerals and plant extracts to solve it, with the demand for food supplements and vitamins rising by 30 percent in seven years. 
The industry is now worth some €1.6 billion. While supplements sold in pharmacies are not dangerous, the French have been warned about what they buy online.
ANSES is also concerned by the rise in the popularity of raw meat and fish, like the traditional steak tartare and sushi, which comes it points out is not without risks, as it can lead to people getting salmonella and other bacterial infections. 
When it comes to eating habits, men are eating less healthily than women, the ANSES study shows. The diet for French males tends to include more meat, fewer fruits and vegetables, more cheese and more fizzy drinks and alcohol. 
According to the survey, French women have been more receptive to dietary advice, with females eating more soups, white meat and yoghurts. 
However, they do eat less fish and pulses like white beans and lentils than men. 
The report also showed that there is a societal difference in typical diets with middle managers or executives (known as cadres in French) generally eating better than blue-collar and manual workers in France. 
Another more peculiar problem highlighted by the survey is that the French are not keeping their fridges at a low  enough temperature which is leaving them vulnerable to bacteria like listeria.
The recommended temperature is 4C but a whopping 44 percent of French people keep their fridges at a balmy 6C or higher.
On top of this, the French are ignoring the “consume by” dates on refrigerated products. And while this might not be so much of a problem for yoghurts, ANSES is worried by the number of people who are ignoring the instructions on meat products.  


For members


Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

READ ALSO 7 tips for buying cheese in France

The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!