We all need food to survive and live, but is the food we eat killing us, or is it food to die for? Our newspapers and social media almost revel in reports about our diets being bad for us. And both sides of the political divide are doing it – from the Daily Mail to The Guardian. And above all junk food is getting blamed.
Obesity and Food Processing
I live in France, and recently I was asked if the French diet is healthier than the British. The percentage of adults in the UK who are obese is 28–30% plus 10% of children, whereas France comes out at between 22 and 23% with children at 8%. The rumour mill of the internet and social media links obesity with the consumption of ultra-processed food and drink – UPFD – also defined by some as junk food. But do the figures for these in the UK and France marry up?
At their simplest, UPFD are those foods that are highly processed – and include soft drinks, packaged snacks, breakfast cereals, reconstituted meat products, plant-based meat substitutes, and pre-prepared frozen dishes.
Ultra-Processed Food and Drink
UPFDs constitute just over 50% of the UK shopping basket, and in France it is under 15%. So the UK is more obese than France and it consumes significantly more UPFD. But, and it is an enormous but, whilst there is a correlation between these two, it is only a correlation. There may be causation, but scientists have not clearly identified it.
The food industry would have us believe UPFD are not just healthy but directly beneficial to us – one of the food myths we have to try and live with – as discussed by TC Callis. The food myth that fat is bad for us propounded by Ancel Keys has been long debunked. The real danger is the substitute calories we consume from sugar and carbohydrates as detailed by John Yudkin in his excellent book Pure, White and Deadly.
With no claim to expertise in nutrition, I have long felt that the connection between us and our food was being stretched. We evolved to hunt and gather and now we frequent supermarkets. I remember standing in one in the UK selecting green beans and I read the label – grown in Kenya and flown to the UK. All my environmental credentials for choosing organic collapsed.
Part of moving to France was a desire to get closer to our food. Acquiring a holiday home in France and spending as much time there as we could had meant giving up our allotment. And that allotment had been the place where the only recipe I had ever devised had been invented. Corn on the cob: put the pot on to boil; go to the allotment and cut cobs; run home removing outside leaves; place in water until tender; add butter and pepper (salt if preferred) and eat. The proof is in the flavour – freshness matters, minimal processing matters.
Evolution gave us the ability to survive on almost anything – meat, fish and vegetables – and for millions of years that meant fresh. A pioneer of the UPFD industry was John Harvey Kellogg whose bland processed foods were designed to minimise sexual arousal and masturbation. I still love sweetcorn, as fresh as possible, but I never liked cornflakes.
So what, if anything, are the differences that can be identified between the UK and the French diets? They will vary enormously between individuals and probably between regions but there are some factors that point the way.
Long French Lunches
France is famous for its long lunches. When we moved from our holiday home to our final house a neighbour in the little hamlet offered his assistance. The house was not far, so we hired a van to transport our furniture in a number of loads. After a hard morning, we headed back for another load as noon approached. I said we would stop on the way and get some sandwiches at a Boulangerie. Frederick was horrified and explained that his wife had prepared lunch and we were going to his house. My heart sank as this meant we would lose precious hours.
Lunch was three wonderful courses interspersed with a little wine for good measure. Perhaps because of the time and the rest we were invigorated and set about the afternoon full of energy, moving everything in a few hours.
Despite France’s longer lunches, its productivity is higher than the UK. And evidence is accumulating of four-day weeks being more productive. Answering emails whilst I grabbed lunch at my desk in a London office might have clocked more hours but I doubt it was more productive and was almost certainly unhealthy.
One of the biggest differences I have seen is where and how people shop for food. The two million people of Paris have 80 food markets, whereas the nine million inhabitants of London have 162, but that includes book and antique markets and others.
This continues further out. Sevenoaks has small mixed markets on Wednesdays and Saturdays serving a population of 18,000. Like most French towns, my nearest one has a purpose-built food market with more suppliers than Sevenoaks and many additional stalls outside, with a population less than one-third of Sevenoaks. It is only on Saturdays but nearby towns have markets on other days.
As a whole, the UK has something over 5,000 food markets, whereas France has over 10,000 plus nearly 1,000 farm shops, each with a variety of local producers selling their wares. And markets are almost always served by small suppliers. Certainly in France, some are buying wholesale, but most are direct producers of meat and vegetables. Fishmongers proudly display signs saying ‘Petit Bateau’ designating their catch is from small boats not giant trawlers.
And supermarkets are growing in number and size. But you cannot just walk into any Leclerc and assume the goods on the shelves will be the same as every other Leclerc. Laws require a percentage of local produce and in recent years the supermarkets have taken to hanging posters publicising their local suppliers.
Abattoirs and Slaughterhouses
Growing our own animals started us on home slaughter. But cleaning the hairs off pig skin for crackling by hand proved to be very hard work so we turned to a nearby abattoir – a French word now largely adopted in the UK, possibly because it distances us from the realities of the slaughterhouse.
EU directives required all abattoirs to have vets in attendance to ensure animal welfare. The UK response was to concentrate on a small number of large operations. From a 1980 figure of over 1,000 there are only 300 left, whereas in 2018 France still had almost 1,000.
Many of the small municipal abattoirs, as we discovered, have a day each week restricted to animals en famille – literally with family. This means groups of two, three or four pigs or sheep and the occasional cow will be brought by smallholders. Lorry loads of animals will not be mixed in, ensuring that the process is gentler and less traumatic.
The meat can only be sold if it is butchered by a licensed butcher in a licensed butchery, but ours was for home consumption. So like many rural people, I learnt the skills of butchery and we got to eat meat that had been grown and fed and cared for by us.
The industrial meat production of sheds and feedlots, so prevalent in the USA, has spread to the UK and is growing in France. I always feel uncomfortable driving past the sheds a few kilometres away, each housing more than 30,000 chickens.
When I began preparing this article I was certain that one difference I would find would be in the consumption of fast food. And it is always interesting to have your assumptions challenged and to learn something new.
France has more McDonalds than the UK. McDonalds is a powerful brand with a huge marketing machine, so I wondered if this was an anomaly. And it is not. France has more fast-food outlets than the UK. And the spending on fast food is pretty similar at €23 billion in France and £22 billion in the UK.
Some would argue there are differences in these industries in France and the UK, with even McDonalds providing more tables, with more space and more seats.
Fresh and local are my preferences, ideally from small suppliers who grow their own, and my sense is that is still true of more people in France than in the UK. The various items above mean the French diet tends to be more seasonal and often fresher and that should mean healthier. Less processing does mean more micro-nutrients and local food from small producers should mean fewer added chemicals, which is good.
I am concerned at the steady growth of larger farms across the UK, France and elsewhere. French agriculture already uses more pesticide than almost anywhere else in Europe. I wonder if the industrialisation of our food will reverse or get worse.