The moment I touch down in a new city I assess the quality of the food and locate the nearest health-food store and gastro-friendly restaurants. Food is thy medicine, and given my allergies to gluten, sugar cane, and dairy, my food options are usually very limited; I have to avoid processed foods like the plague.
When I recently arrived in France, perennially known for its culinary traditions as it is, I was astonished by the amount of prepackaged and frozen foods served in French restaurants and the staggering number of loud-colored labels lining the shelves in grocery stores.
Indeed, I discovered, French restaurants and the French public at large purchased over $94 billion worth of packaged goods in 2013, according to EuroMonitor. This basically includes anything canned and wrapped, such as snack bars, spreads, canned and preserved foods, pasta, ready meals, sauces, dressings, and soup.
When you are used to eating fresh, organic produce, it’s pretty easy to detect when the tuna in your salade niçoise is being scooped out of a can or when the green beans were frozen in a bag. Considering I’m in Cannes, such a faux-pas feels like a crime against gastronomy.
A Rule Change for French Restaurants
The deterioration of food quality in French restaurants seems a trend that’s not going away; more than a third of French eateries admit to serving “industrially processed” food, according to Take Part.
Consequently, the government recently passed a law to battle “the surprising amount of factory-made, prepackaged food in French restaurants.” Restaurateurs will now have to include an odd little symbol on their menus: a skillet with a house on top, indicating that the food they serve is actually cooked under their roof. The phrase “fait-maison” means homemade. What a novel idea for a country famous for its food quality – a country whose supposedly gourmet standards have spawned a gazillion posh French restaurants from London to L.A.
“It’s about sending a message that France is a country where we eat well, where we have skills, especially cooking skills,” says Carole Delga, France’s chief of consumer affairs, in an interview with The Associated Press. She adds, “We wanted to give concrete tools for tourists and for French people, and recognize cooking as an integral part of our French identity.”
Unfortunately, critics say the law doesn’t go far enough because it still allows French restaurants to label dishes made from frozen, pre-peeled, or pre-cut products, “fait-maison.” Incidentally, there is an exception for potatoes, dubbed the “McDonald’s exception” by the French media. It states that no one making french fries out of pre-peeled potatoes can claim they’re homemade.
Yet, in essence, the law still serves the bottom lines of both the food-processing industry and French restaurants, where low-cost, pre-processed ingredients can still comprise high-ticket dishes; the new rule’s Achilles’ heel is that, though fait-maison must be made only from “raw ingredients,” “smoked, salted, refrigerated, frozen, or deep-frozen” produce, as well as vacuum-packed food as ingredients for other dishes, are still allowed.
Meanwhile, if you want fresh steamed vegetables with your meal forget about it. Many French restaurants seem to view veggies the same way a child would: with disgust. And also forget about asking a French restaurant to amend a dish with freshness. They’ll just respond, “C’est comme ca — If you don’t like it, you can leave.” Don’t expect good customer service from the French!
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In 2010, French cuisine actually earned a spot on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage List. Yet two recessions in recent years have driven more and more chefs at French restaurants to resort to prepackaged food in order to cut costs. And, as you can imagine, French industrial food makers are quite skilled at creating frozen foods and dishes that can be prepared quickly and look homemade.
According to The New York Times, in 2013 the French spent more money in fast-food chains than in traditional restaurants, making up 54 percent of the 34 billion-euro market for French restaurants! The result? The French are getting fatter. In America, 30 percent of the population is obese. In France, it’s 11 percent. This sounds low but not when you consider the rate was only 5.5 percent just 20 years ago.
Most people buy groceries at mainstream markets and are ignorant when it comes to labels and ingredients. For instance, one woman standing in front of me in line was buying gluten-free muffins. Great! She has to avoid gluten. But what about other substandard ingredients? She didn’t seem to mind that the corn flour was genetically modified or that the manufacturer used hydrogenated oils in their mix.
Luckily, I was able to find a small, family-owned, organic grocery store in Cannes called Bio Sauvage, or “Wild Organics,” within walking distance. Entering the store filled me with happiness and relief.
There, I stocked up on gluten-free crackers made of walnut flour (delish), organic cacao, freshly picked, organic strawberries and tomatoes, fresh goat yogurt, and organic meats void of fillers and other crap. I even scored some kombucha.
Ben Carraso, the young owner of Bio Sauvage, is just as passionate about food security and food politics as many of us at the hive. He’s constantly educating patrons on the ills of processed foods. But, alas, his store is still on the fringes of the mainstream.
As for the new “homemade” food law in French restaurants, it went into effect in early August. It is, at least, another positive step for the right-to-know movement. French restaurants and catering companies now have until Jan. 1, 2015, to incorporate the homemade symbol into their menus — so if you find yourself dining in France next year, you’ll finally know what you’re eating. …
Maryam Henein is an investigative journalist, professional researcher, and producer of the award-winning documentary Vanishing of the Bees.
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