France may be seen as one of the world’s gastronomic heartlands but it has not been immune to a problem seen in many Western countries – childhood obesity. The French government has recently launched a raft of initiatives in a bid to improve children’s diets but is facing calls to bring in more regulation – particularly on advertising. Ben Cooper reports.

France is a country renowned for an almost sacred culinary tradition. But the French, just like many other countries, have proved vulnerable to the growing problem of childhood obesity.

The rising consumption of junk food and mounting concerns over the health of children in France prompted the French government to unveil a raft of measures to combat the problem last month. These measures have come as sections of the French food industry believe a return to a more traditional French diet could be an effective weapon in the fight against obesity.

Back in the 1990s, the notion of the French Paradox had much currency in the drinks industry. It had been observed that France had lower rates of heart disease, in spite of a traditionally high-fat diet. It was concluded by many that the beneficial aspects of the French and Mediterranean diet – plenty of fresh produce, olive oil, fish, and in particular red wine – were the cause of this apparent contradiction.

Returning to traditional values – fresh ingredients, home cooking and the like – is an important element in the drive towards reducing obesity and improving diet in many countries. It is not surprising, therefore, to find this strain of thinking in France. Indeed, the Slow Food movement, which now extends to the US, the UK, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Japan, was actually founded in Paris in 1989.

Laura Drago, spokesperson for Slow Food France, says the objective of the Slow Food movement is a cultural one, to “educate the palate” and encourage people “to take pleasure in what they are eating”. She adds that while much traditional cuisine in France is high in fat, there is a place for such foods within a balanced diet.

According to Drago, many small groups, such as producer associations and professional groups in the catering industry, as well as larger institutions such as the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO), have become involved in the fight against rising obesity levels, by promoting a more natural, and more traditionally French diet.

Among these is the campaign group Les Sens du Gout. Danielle Pautrel of Sens du Gout says children have become “alienated” from food, suggesting the problem – and the solution – is to a considerable degree a cultural one. Pautrel says that regulations and dietary advice represent one aspect in the fight against rising obesity but fostering the right food culture was as much an emotional challenge as a scientific one. The mission of Sens du Gout centres on educating people about where food comes from, the seasonality of food and, of course, the specific traditions of French food production and preparation.

However, for others, romanticising the French food culture is something of a distraction. Olivier Andrault of the French consumer group UFC-Que Choisir sees the problems facing France, and the action it must take, as little different from other countries such as the UK and the US.

While Andrault believes that France’s food culture may have helped protect it to a degree in the past, he sees the notion that France is a case apart as unhelpful and the over-emphasis on its culinary traditions as passé. “We should get rid of this cliché,” says Andrault. “The fact is that food is global. Children drink soft drinks and want to eat the same fatty foods all over the world. This is very much the same in France.”

Interestingly, two reports published at the European Congress on Obesity (ECO), which took place in Geneva earlier this month, suggest that rates of childhood obesity are slowing in France while continuing to grow in other countries. Andrault, nevertheless, believes strong regulatory action is necessary.

While the researchers behind the two studies said they could not prove a direct link between public health policies and the slowdown in the trend towards obesity, they said some interventions, such as banning confectionery vending machines in schools, had had an effect.

“The public health policies have changed in France since 2000, but we cannot prove that the stabilisation of obesity is due to these interventions,” said Katia Castetbon, head of the nutrition epidemiology unit at the Institute for French Health Surveillance. “It is possible that increased attention on childhood obesity has had some impact.”

While the studies indicate the situation has improved, the suggestion that interventions have contributed to this should encourage campaigners and French Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot-Narquin in the pursuit of more regulation.

There seems to be some common ground between campaigners and Bachelot-Narquin over the approach to food regulation. UFC-Que Choisir is calling for a three-pronged approach, focusing on food in schools, the nutritional content of processed food and the marketing of food to children, which are broadly the areas Bachelot-Narquin is seeking to address.

In February, Bachelot-Narquin announced that controls may be introduced on the advertising of certain foods during children’s TV. The intention was to reach some form of voluntary code, but Bachelot-Narquin said that legislation could follow if voluntary measures could not be established. A series of consultative meetings with relevant stakeholders was planned, but the French food industry representative body, the Association Nationale des Industries Alimentaires (ANIA), elected not to participate. ANIA is now holding separate discussions with relevant government departments.

UFC-Que Choisir’s Andrault is adamant that legislation is required, rather than voluntary measures. “If we want things to change, voluntary measures won’t be sufficient,” he tells just-food. “We definitely need strong government action. Some food producers voluntarily withdraw advertising from children’s programmes but others don’t. If others don’t the problem is not solved.”

Andrault believes France should introduce similar restrictions to those seen in the UK, whereby foods advertised during children’s programmes have to meet certain nutritional criteria. “At the moment we have nothing in France,” Andrault says. “At the moment, companies can advertise junk food that is high in salt sugar and fat in the middle of a cartoon programme. To get to the stage where the UK is would be great.”

Andrault also believes France has to make further progress on front-of-pack nutritional labelling. Once again, he is hoping France will follow the example seen in the UK. “This is not so widespread in France,” he says. “In the UK, the retail industry uses it as a marketing tool. It is clear that the situation is not as advanced in France as it is in the UK.”

However, in terms of the overall direction of food regulation in France, Andrault fears that as responsibility in this area is no longer the sole preserve of the Health Ministry, but also involves other government departments, Bachelot-Narquin may find her attempts to introduce stronger regulation compromised.

In particular, Andrault is concerned that Bachelot-Narquin’s plans for TV advertising restrictions may be watered down. These concerns appear justified if remarks made by the Culture Minister, Christine Albanel, after Bachelot-Narquin made her initial announcement on TV advertising, are anything to go by. Regarding a possible ban, Albanel, who has responsibility for the broadcasting industry, was quoted as saying: “We are sure what damage this would cause to the economy of television without being sure of the benefits to children’s health.”

Given Bachelot-Narquin’s own strong views on this question, there may well already have been some fairly lively inter-departmental discussions on the subject, and the issue is likely to continue to be hotly debated by industry, campaigners and various government departments for some time to come.