Like the UK’s Food Standards Agency, France has an institute in charge of healthy eating recommendations. It’s got an acronym of course (how the French love their acronyms!): INPES L’institut national de prevention et d’education pour la sante. The guidelines are part of the Programme National Nutrition Santé (PNNS) and there is a promotional website for the public. The French advice contains nine basic guidelines, similar but not identical to the UK. Where the two depart is the French insistence on eating an animal-derived product every day.
Did France ban vegan food in schools?
Back in 2011, online news reports carried inflammatory headlines such as, ‘Vegetarian and vegan meals banned in France’. Some of the more virulent protests suggested that it had actually become illegal to live as a vegetarian in France. This wasn’t actually true. The reports were referring to Decree No 2011-227 (30 September 2011) which stated that all meals served in French school canteens must contain animal products and that meat and fish should be served with set minimum frequencies.
Since then the tide has turned. In September 2018 the French Assembly passed a ruling that schools were to serve a vegetarian menu at least once a week for a trial period of two years. One of the main supporting arguments was environmental and the need to reduce food waste, but at least it is a step in the right direction. However, parents do still experience problems if they, or indeed their children, wish to eat a vegan meal every day and for many the only solution is to provide lunch at home.
French dietary advice
Just in case the subject should ever come up with your doctor, it might be worth having an awareness of French dietary guidelines. Like the UK, INPES recommends eating five portions of fruit and vegetables per day, plenty of fibre and unlimited water, not too much fat, salt or sugar and getting exercise for at least thirty minutes a day. More worrying for both vegetarians and vegans is the advice to eat dairy products three times a day and meat, fish or eggs once or twice daily. These frequencies are not really in accord with current nutritional thinking and the health implications of a diet top-heavy in meat. Nevertheless, another sign of changing times, is a group of French physicians gathered under the banner acronym of APSARES – essentially, French physicians for a responsible diet – who are in favour of a plant-based diet.
What do the labels say about nutrition?
Since 2016, EU law has imposed requirements for various forms of nutritional information on food packaging. There’s a great infographic on the Commission website explaining the details. Most rules relate to the provision of allergy information and, as yet, this does not extend to actual nutritional values. However, most French manufacturers do provide these details. The label in this example is also coloured, in a similar way to the UK traffic lights system, but this is a voluntary move by the producers and there is not yet an EU or government regulation covering this.
What the label says:
Energie energy or calories
Matières grasses total fat
(dont acides gras saturés) (of which) saturated fat
(dont sucres) sugar
Fibres alimentaires dietary fibre
As in the UK labelling system, the calorie calculations are given on a per portion and a per 100g basis.
Using allergy info to your advantage
When you’re in the supermarket (if you’re anything like me, without your reading glasses!) you can quickly check out whether the list of ingredients contains a product that is allergy-sensitive as the terms will be printed in bold. The main ones to look out for are lait (dairy) and oeufs (eggs), but you’ll also come across a whole range of terms, listed below. In addition to food products, shops and restaurants are obliged to supply allergy information to their customers and so you can ask to see the allergy chart in the boulangerie, for example.
Good news: French bread (baguettes) are vegan!
Compulsory allergy labelling: French wording
Cereals with gluten: Céréales contenant du gluten (blé, seigle, orge, avoine, épeautre, kamut ou leurs souches hybridées) et produits à base de ces céréales
Shellfish: Crustacés et produits à base de crustacés
Eggs and egg by-products: Oeufs et produits à base d’œufs
Fish: Poissons et produits à base de poissons
Peanuts/ ground nuts: Arachides et produits à base d’arachide
Soya: Soja et produits à base de soja
Dairy: Lait et produits à base de lait (y compris de lactose)
Shelled nuts: Fruits à coques (amandes, noisettes, noix, noix de : cajou, pécan, macadamia, du Brésil, pistaches)
Sesame: Graines de sésame
Sulfites: Anhydride sulfureux et sulfites en concentration de plus de 10mg/kg ou 10 mg/l (exprimés en SO2)