Friday, November 5, 2010

Observations from France

I recently got back from a trip to the UK and France visiting family and friends. It was great to see everyone, eat great food and even do some unexpected foraging (chestnuts, mushrooms, walnuts, blackberries). French people are in better general health than most industrialized nations. The obesity, diabetes and heart disease rates are all considerably lower than in the US, although still much higher than in non-industrial cultures. Here are a few of my observations about French food:

  1. The French diet generally contains a lot of fat, mostly from traditional animal sources such as dairy and pork fat. Industrial seed oils have crept into the diet over the course of the 20th century, although not to the same degree as in most affluent nations. People seem to think that eating a lot of fat is unhealthy, particularly the younger generation, but they do it anyway. I had dinner with my family at a traditional restaurant in Lyon (a "bouchon Lyonnais" called Stepharo) last week. Before we ordered, they immediately brought out crispy fried chunks of pork skin and fat (I'm not claiming this is healthy!). The entree was a salad: a bed of lettuce piled high with chicken livers, herring, and "pig's feet". The pigs feet were essentially gobs of pork fat. It was a very good meal that I'll continue describing later in the post. I think it's worth pointing out that Lyon is in Southern France. Is this the "Mediterranean diet"?
  2. French people eat organs. Yes, they never got the memo that muscle meat is the only edible tissue. A typical butcher or even grocery store will have liver, tripe, kidney and blood sausage on full display next to the meat. If you want to make a French person angry, try selling them a chicken or a rabbit without the liver, gizzard and heart. The main course at Stepharo was a large "andouilette", or tripe sausage, baked in mustard sauce. This was a typical traditional restaurant, not a hangout for gastronauts.
  3. French people fiercely defend the quality of their food. Have you heard of the abbreviation AOC? It stands for "Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée", or controlled designation of origin. A familiar example is Champagne, which has the AOC label. You can't call your sparkling wine Champagne unless it comes from the region Champagne. However, that's only half the story. AOC also designates a specific, traditional production method, in this case called the "méthode champenoise." The AOC label can apply to a variety of food products, including wine, butter, cheese, honey, mustard and seafood, and is a guarantee of quality and tradition. 44 cheeses currently have the AOC designation, and these are commonly available in markets and grocery stores throughout the country (1). These are not fancy products that only the wealthy can afford-- many of them are quality foods that are accessible to nearly everyone. AOC defines many aspects of cheese production, often requiring a minimum amount of pasture time and specifying livestock breeds. The US has a few products that are regulated in a similar fashion, such as Bourbon whiskey, but generally we are far behind in assuring food quality and transparency.
  4. French people cook. There is less outsourcing of food processing in France, for several reasons. One reason is that restaurants are generally expensive. That trend is changing however.
I don't think the French diet is optimal by any means. They eat a lot of white flour, some sugar, seed oils and other processed foods. But I do think the French diet has many good qualities, and it certainly poses a number of problems for the mainstream concept of healthy food. Hence the "French paradox."


lacrosse keeper said...

"AOC defines many aspects of cheese production, often requiring a minimum amount of pasture time and specifying livestock breeds. The US has a few products that are regulated in a similar fashion, such as Bourbon whiskey, but generally we are far behind in assuring food quality and transparency." U.S. states regulate cheese production including pasteurization specifics. I don't understand what the advantage would be for having the government specify which livestock breeds to use. Why would that be better than freedom of choice?

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi reglsg,

AOC does not limit your freedom of choice in any way, it just gives you information. You can still buy crappy cheese if you want to. What AOC does is guarantee the customer that he is getting what he thinks he's getting: a quality food produced by traditional methods. If it weren't for AOC, you could mass produce pasteurized Roquefort in Wisconsin and the consumer would have no way of knowing it's inferior without buying it.

As an analogy, imagine that Honda built a car that looks just like a Ferrari, has the Ferrari brand name but has a Civic engine under the hood. You might be pissed if you bought it not realizing it was actually a Honda.

MsCFaith said...

One word... gross!

Loads of fats and organs? Yeck!

Natural Health

rosenfeltc said...

Great to have you back and I hope your vacation was awesome. While you were on vacation I took the time to reread from the beginning all of your blog posts and comments; what a great journey!

You might not remember me but I emailed you almost a year ago and basically my problems were acne, tongue thrush and basically what I believe is gut dysbiosis from 2 straight years of taking antibiotics. Anyways I had changes my diet a year ago after reading some of your blog posts and emailing you and had quite a bit of health/energy improvements yet I never felt likei was 100 percent. However, with your more recent research on gut flora, it has led me to do some research on gut flora myself and I plan to start doing a supplementation protocol next week of probiotics and prebiotics and I will let you know what the results are a month after I start my protocol. Anyways keep up the awesome blog posts and don't ever change. You are the most open minded, honest and diligent researcher I know! said...

I'm glad you're back. I always enjoy your insights.

gallier2 said...

Saw not so recently a TV show explaining also how AOC is used in trade war against the "americanisation" of world commerce. The french way of binding the "branding" with the territory of production and the methods of production has been introduced in several other countries for the benefit of the people producing them. An example that was given is Thai and Basmati fragrant rices which can only be sold under these names when they comply to certain constraints (at least in the EU) of origin. This was to counter the offensive of US rice that tried to corner that part of the market by mislabeling hybrid fragrant rice varieties as Basmati.

This said, the AOC petard blew in the face of the french cheesemakers, as they had to stop marketing the sheep milk cheese surplus coming from the Roquefort production as Feta, as that name was changed to an AOC from the EU regulations. This touched also Danish and German cheesemakers who made fake feta from cow milk.

There's also another aspect of food in France that you haven't mentioned, French are also willing to pay more for better food. I once read that in the US (or was it UK, I don't remember) less than 10% of household budget was dedicated to food, in France it was more in the 20% to 40% range.

As for Lyon, it's the gastronomical centre of France, all big chefs come from there. It's even more prominent than Paris for that. And it's not mediterranean by any stretch (more than 400km from Lyon to Marseille).

gunther gatherer said...

I've been living in Normandy for the last 6 months, and I agree with all your observations, Stephan.

One thing I would add also: the French distinguish pasture-fed and raw foods from industrially fed and pasteurised/heat treated foods. At least they do here in Normandy. That's not saying they do that in the big cities as much, but looking at the cheeses and milk, at all quality stores you will find the words "au lait cru" on the cheese, as well as indications regarding its method of production ("artesan" cheese made traditionally, or the origin).

Many of the cheeses, milk products, foie gras, meats and vegetables are made by families whose farms have been in business several hundred years, so it's a selling point among the French too. It's not uncommon to hear people ask what farm the meat comes from at the charcuterie!

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Stephen said...

Lyon isn't just the food center of France, it's the food center of the universe!!

The French insist on fresh local food produced using traditional methods. And yes, they eat bread and some sugar, but not like us Americans. The good animal fats they eat seem to counter that.

I think I'll have a good steak with a brandy cream sauce flavored with peppercorns and mustard, potatoes dauphinois, buttered petite peas washed down with a nice Rhone.

Chris said...

Stephan - you mentioned the UK too. Where were you? Here in Scotland most people have a poor diet. The food is there - good meat, veggies, cheeses etc but people don't take advantage......

Valda Redfern said...
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Valda Redfern said...

I also live in the UK and, just going by what people buy in supermarkets here and in France, most of us here have a ghastly diet compared to the French.

Every so often I go to conferences with a mixed French and British attendance. I can usually tell which attendees are French and which British just by looking at them. The British tend to be somewhat taller, much heavier, and much more likely to have pot bellies.

It's not that I never saw a fat French person at a conference, or that middle-aged Frenchmen look like Olympic sprinters, but as a rule the French do look healthier than the Brits.

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi rosenfeltc,

Glad you've been improving. Thanks for the kind words.

Hi Gallier2,

Another example is the Napa valley label. There were some European wineries that were labeling their wines Napa until there was a trade agreement that restricted it. I don't think it's quite the equivalent of AOC though, because I believe it only regulates provenance.

Hi Gunther,

Thanks for your observations.

Hi Edward,

I do think it's interesting that there has been a major resurgence of traditional/quality food in the UK, even if it hasn't reached everyone.

Hi Chris,

I was in Windsor and Cambridge visiting friends. We collected kilos of chestnuts in the great park in Windsor. Then we proceeded to stuff ourselves with them over the next few days. We also went to prince Charles's farm store, which was great. Lots of organic heirloom fruit and traditional meats and cheeses.

Anna said...

Ah, Edward - not long ago I discovered "salades lyonnaises" in vintage cook book, and my idea of egg salad was forever changed. "French Egg Salad" as we are calling it, is now a favorite easy fast meal when I don't feel like cooking, though it hasn't quite supplanted "salades Niçoise" just yet.

Anna said...

Every 5 years or so we join my husband's UK/Norwegian family somewhere in the UK or Europe, staying at self-catering holiday rental accommodations. My SIL is a chef and I also like to cook, too, so we really soak up the local food (and local food is a significant factor in the chosen location). We enjoy communal family meals most evenings, with only one dinner out as a big group. That strategy saves a LOT of money (though even home-prepared food is still much more expensive than in the US). It's also much easier and more relaxing with young kids and we can enjoy the wine without having to drive and so on.

We've had good food in the UK in the Devon/Dorset area. Axminster is the site of a shop and cooking classes run by the River Cottage Farm/Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall interests (there is a larger shop in Bath, where the there is a larger market for River Cottage Farm foods There are some other farm shops with local products near Axminster, too.

We also really enjoyed the availability of locally produced foods when we stayed in Brittany a few years back.

Surprisingly, we had a harder time finding non-supermarket produce in the countryside in Tuscany without driving into Sienna (parking at the market was impossible), but it may be we just didn't know where to go. We were in a fairly remote area and it wasn't as easy to ask around so we did mostly supermarket shopping, which wasn't very exciting.

Anonymous said...

Wow those "crispy fried chunks of pork skin and fat" sound delicious! Certainly a healthier replacement for the usual chips or bread most places bring out as appetizers.

"Guppy" Honaker said...


You're back! Bienvenu notre ami.

I wonder (and one of the few "Mormons" who would) if part of their benefits from an otherwise unhealthy diet is red wine? In moderation, I think it must help them - and from what I've heard, it's the national drink.

I have a question, you mentioned seed oils as a problem food. Which seed oils? I always thought that flax seed is VERY good for a person, and etc. Certainly great for baking in bread (to help my wife avoid breast cancer).

Anyway, welcome back. You have been missed.

A la prochain (my portugues, espanol and ivrit are 100% better than my french which I can speak and undestand way better than I can write it),

- David

Top 10 Aloe Vera Juice Benefits
Holistic Nutrition and Health

jon w said...

I agree, why disparage the fried pork? My wife's family in Bosnia spreads lard with bits of fried pork on bread, eats raw slices of smoked pork belly, and of course the organs of a lamb or piglet are a delicacy at every barbeque.

LPaForLife said...

I was in Lyon this summer. I enjoyed the incredible fresh foods and the farmers market down by the river.

I also observed that many French like to walk alot, don't rush eating, and don't eat too much. They like quality not quatity. They also eat a light breakfast or skip it.

Edward, Have you ever had the Baba au Ruhm with fruits at Quest or East Restaurant? I cheated for this and got sick but it was worth it!

Alina said...

Sounds like you had a great trip!

I love the expression "French paradox", because it's almost like overtly saying "our hypothesis lacks predictive value but we'll go with it anyway."

What's wrong with fried pork, if it's fried in its own fat? I don't eat pork, personally, but I am under the expression that bacon is edible, so wouldn't fried pork be along the same lines?

Bob Bejaan said...

interesting thoughts on french food, what about the uk? any different from america?

mess talker said...

I was in a theatre troupe from the U.S. that would perform in Europe and everyone would lose a few pounds after the first week of eating "real food". Probably helped that we were poor. Ha. One of my favorite meals of all time was a potatoes au gratin from a small place in Lyon or maybe Dijon. Not like mom's from a box!
I would usually eat steak tartare as it was one of the cheapest items on the menu. So good.

Lorna said...


I have never been to America, so never seen American food, however every time I read something on an American site about GM food, giving grains to organic cattle, trans fats in chocolate, this and that additive etc, when I look into the UK equivilant, we don't do it - or at least nothing like as bad. And we don't have feedlots... yet...

Our supermarkets own ranges are all proudly GM free, and any GM food is labelled - apart from when it is fed to conventional animals, the meat isn't labelled ;0( - and all of them stock a very wide range of organic products.

We have great organic standards - at least 60% of all feed should be grass and the cows have to be allowed to graze outside for it. The other 40% is strictly controlled too.

We do have plenty of junk, and people do eat it: we're far less particular than the French.

So good and bad - but I do feel a day trip to France coming on. Mmmm. Although our restaurant food has improved beyond all recognition in the last twenty years. A big emphasis on homegrown veg and local quality meat. Yum!

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Unknown said...


How do you deal with gluten when you eat out/travel? Do you insist that everything is gluten-free, or just avoid the obvious breads and pastas, or allow yourself a cheat?

This post reminds me of several years ago when I spent a month as an exchange student in Germany, living with a local family. Germans are not particularly afraid of carbs (I never once saw anything "whole grain," and the younger people in particular often ate/drank junk food), but they're REALLY REALLY not afraid of ginormous helpings of animal fats and proteins. Not a single American in the exchage was able to finish a German family dinner (I'm guessing because our guts weren't used to having to digest so much saturated fat), but the Germans ate with gusto, and then said "but you're're supposed to eat a lot!" Most Europeans I saw weren't overweight, and were pretty healthy-looking and active. Us Americans couldn't figure it out at the time...

Fredrik Gyllensten said...

Interesting post Stephen. Traveling is great :-)

Girl In An Apron said...

Fabulous post! I often refer to the "French paradox" when discussing food. Thank you for sharing your lovely and important observations. Now I'm hungry!

aouo said...

"Before we ordered, they immediately brought out crispy fried chunks of pork skin and fat (I'm not claiming this is healthy!)."

Hm, why you are not claiming this is healthy?

Dr. Curmudgeon Gee said...

sounds yummy.

i have trouble finding quality organ meat here (SF bay area) sigh.

why is pork skin unhealthy? (as long as it's friend in its own fat (lard)?

recently my greatest accomplishment is talk my French ballet teacher back into eating like a French. LOL. she has been living in US for too long to be a bit "brain washed" into a little "SFA phobia." then she lost weight after switching back to a more traditional diet. dont' think i can get her to quit smoking. sigh. but she does not smoke much.)



Stephan Guyenet said...

To Pam and others who asked about the crispy fried pork skin/fat:

I don't think pork fat and skin is inherently unhealthy, it's the frying that's bad. High-heat cooking in fat like that creates a number of compounds (oxidized lipids, AGEs, etc.) that are not healthy in my opinion. This is an issue I haven't tackled yet on the blog, but I may at some point. Or I may wait for Chris Masterjohn to do it because he's been thinking about this stuff as well. I think that gentle cooking methods are generally superior to high heat.

Tom Jeanne said...

And pork fat is very high in PUFA for an animal fat. Best to focus on coconut oil, beef fat, and milk fat. I eat a fair amount of pork but use ghee/butter or coconut oil for cooking.

12% PUFA, more than olive oil.

Dana Seilhan said...

I do think it odd that lard is so often referred to as "saturated fat" in the popular literature and the public consciousness when it's so high in MUFA and PUFA, which should make it well nigh a health food, if people were logical. *sigh*

Cajun culture is almost dead today, but there are still people eating the traditional foods and I wish there were more of them. If you're ever in Louisiana, aside from the seafood (which I'm not sure I would trust anymore post-Deepwater Horizon), get out into the southwestern prairie and get hold of some sausage and boudin. By rights they should refer to the sausage as andouille, but the locals have been brainwashed into thinking their language inferior, and will look at you funny if you try it.

I suspect it's foods like those that have kept them from degenerating into permanent Big Pharma charity cases. Not that obesity and heart disease and diabetes aren't still major problems there.

Dr. Curmudgeon Gee said...

re. PUFA in lard,
my sources list 8%,
palm oil has 10% PUFA
& olive oil has 14% PUFA, human breast milk has 10% PUFA; tea seed oil has 10% PUFA. strange.

it seems to vary from sources.

lard has vitamin D (if the pigs are raised outdoors).

re. cooking with heat, maybe any frying with heat is bad. :-(

i have been reading Brian Peskin's book on cancer. it is interesting. esp. his opionion on n-6 & EFA's effect on cancer. but he think most n-6 is "adulterated" (= bad). also the good spacedoc thinks n-6 is important.

now i'm getting confused about n-6.



Zoe said...

Observations from my grandma's diet:

My family has a long line of female centenarians and the men in my family lived well into their mid 90s. My grandparents are still alive and well, so this is what they (and I) eat:

* Greasy pork trotters, especially the skin

* Roast duck dripping in duck fat

* Chicken feet

* Wild birds roasted (my uncle hunts on the land near their farm)

* Grilled pork livers, chicken livers and giblets

* Eggs (from chickens, ducks and quails)

* Marrow soup (the marrow is so thick, you scoop it out with a small spoon)

* Fish, crabs and mussels (they also eat the fish eyeballs!)

* Lard - this is the oil they use to cook pretty much everything in

Skip Safire said...

Hey Stephan,

interesting news. As I'm deep frying quite often, I was wondering if you could provide more specific information. I only deepfry in coconut or palm oil, the max. oil temperature is 170°C. Apparently, these oils have way better high-heat cooking properties than the other veg. oils (less oxidation, less. I also seem to remember a study/graph where palm oil, oil temperature and acrylamide content was measured (can't provide the source unfortunately): it raised dramatically when the temperature where above 175°C. Another point speaking for deep-frying in sfa may be the traditional way belgians used and still use to fry real belgian fries: with beef tallow.

Also, how else could I make potatoes that simple, quick and tasty?

Alain said...

So glad to read this post.

I joined the Paleo bandwagon about two months. I feel terrific, but I don't think I'd be enjoying myself as much if it weren't for my fondness for, and knowledge of, French cuisine. It's very Paleo-friendly by default—in fact, many French meals would be Paleo if it weren't for the baguette.

French cuisine does rely on cream a lot, but I haven't cut that out and probably won't.

fg said...

Like Alain, on the 'paleo'* diet since about three months ago, and everyday I thank myself for moving to France in 2001 :D

*More like the 'no industrial foods, no wheat' diet, because I eat pretty much everything otherwise.

Stephan, thank you so much for this blog, it's really a wonderful resource. I am going to make a small donation to it.

gsgs said...

the paradoxal French advantage in circulatory deaths -e.g. over Germany-
developed in the 1960s and 1970s. It was not there in 1955.
So, did they change their diet in that period ?
I also saw that i.e. mortality in French women went down.
When you plot the male/female deathratio from all causes for
the middle-aged then it went up a lot (more than USA,England,Germany)
since 1890 with peak in 1985. Although CHD-deaths are mostly concentrated
in males at that agegroup. I don't understand why.