The French paradox
The push for nutritional labels suggests knowledge is power in the battle of the bulge -- yet our svelte Gallic cousins haven't a clue what's in their food, says Liz Kearney
Obesity experts have long puzzled over the so-called French paradox: just how does the nation that gave the world Camembert, claret and croissants remain so svelte?
We've heard countless explanations for why France can boast the EU's lowest obesity levels -- they eat small portions; they don't snack, they respect mealtimes; they stop eating when they're three-quarters full; they save the croissants for the tourists.
Whatever the real reason, the figures speak for themselves. Just 12pc of French adults are obese, compared with 18pc in Ireland and 25pc in the US.
Now we have a new French paradox to grapple with; one that flies in the face of the increasingly popular notion that when it comes to making healthy food choices, knowledge is power.
A new study has shown that while Americans -- the fattest people on the planet -- are totally clued in about the fat content of different foods, the skinny-minnie French haven't a clue.
Scientists from the Centre de Recherche de l'Institut Paul Bocuse in Écully, France; Cornell University in New York; and Université Laval, Québec, in Canada, asked more than 300 French, French-Canadian and American consumers a number of nutrition questions.
The consumers, chosen randomly outside local supermarkets, were asked if they knew, for instance, the fat content in whole milk.
More than 43pc of the French said they didn't know, and if they did offer an opinion, they were likely to be wrong.
By contrast, just 5pc of the Americans said they didn't know, and most were right when they did answer (for the record, whole milk contains 3.6pc fat).
In addition to this, just 9pc of Americans didn't know about the recommended intake of ingredients such as saturated fat, compared to one in five French consumers.
The study's authors concluded that "technical knowledge seems to be inversely correlated to the level of obesity".
Put simply, the more consumers know about how healthy or unhealthy the food they buy is, the more likely they are to be fat.
This is worrying news for the campaigners who believe that better food labelling is the key to winning the battle of the bulge.
Health Minister James Reilly is currently pushing through plans aimed at encouraging fast-food outlets to clearly display calorie counts on their menus.
The initiative -- which is expected to be up and running by the end of this year -- will be voluntary to begin with, according to a health department spokeswoman, and will only become regulated if food service outlets generally don't participate in the scheme.
Such a scheme is already in place in the UK, and in New York, fast-food chains are required by law to clearly state how many calories their menu options contain.
New EU legislation, passed in late 2011 but not due to come into effect until 2016, will require most food products to carry clear nutritional information labels.
But just how useful is this kind of detail, if the French can show that they haven't a clue what's in their food and yet remain slim? Are we barking up the wrong tree?
"Knowledge is not everything," says Orla Walsh, a dietician at the Dublin Nutrition Centre.
"It's true that the more education we have, the easier it is to make healthy choices -- but if it were that simple, obesity would be a simple problem to solve. Dieticians, for instance, know a lot about food, but that's not to say they never struggle with their weight."
Just as important, says Orla, is the attitude of the consumer. As well as knowing what the healthy option is, they have to want to choose it.
And there are other factors at play, too. "There are cultural aspects which affect the way we think about food," Orla adds. "If you go around the globe, the natural build of people in different countries is bigger or smaller -- the French tend to be more petite. Don't forget, the healthcare system is great in France, too, so maybe that plays a role, as well as their attitude to food."
"We are trained to enjoy our food in France," says Pierre Chapeau, who is originally from Cognac but now lives here and, with his Irish wife, runs the French Paradox wine shop and wine bar in Ballsbridge.
"We were taught that by our parents, who in turn were taught by their grandparents. So we have a head start because we already have a healthy attitude to food -- we say, let's enjoy the good things, but in moderation. We don't eat foie gras every day of the week -- it's a treat to be enjoyed once or twice a year. That's the way we have been programmed.
"The tradition of the market is also still strong in France -- we have one in every village, where you can go and buy your fresh food and veg and meat. It's good to have that kind of direct contact with the person who produced the food."
It's probably safe to say there's not a food label in sight at a typical French market, and yet, the notion of buying fresh vegetables and good quality meat in small amounts at a daily market would seem a natural gateway to eating and living well.
So if it's true that the French secret to staying slim lies in simply enjoying food for what it is rather than obsessing over every gram of saturated fat on your plate, then it looks as though our recent infatuation with food labels will only bring us further trouble.
But recent studies in the US -- where labelling is now widespread -- suggest that obesity levels, which had been rising dramatically for decades, are now, if not dropping, at least levelling off.
It might be a lovely notion to be able to buy fresh at a daily market, but most of us are forced to shop in supermarkets and buy packaged, processed foods which need to be frozen or refrigerated to last us through the week. That's simply the way we live -- and if we're buying that kind of food, we need to know what's in it.
Orla Walsh believes that labelling is vital, but adds that it needs to be simple so that the average shopper can quickly understand it. "The people who come up with nutrition labels know a lot about food and often they are too complex. For the average punter, it has to be easier to understand. That's why I like the colour-coded traffic light labels that are used in some places. They are simple and clear.
"There is a lot of conflicting knowledge out there about food and people are confused by different advice.
"They don't know what to believe -- and that's where education is so important, to help show people that it doesn't have to be so complicated.
"Good, clear nutritional information would help to get rid of a lot of the nonsense that's out there. We need to make it easier for people to eat well."