On the Table

On the Table: Eat like the French do by cutting sugar

Contributing CorrespondentFebruary 25, 2014 

— I heard from lots of you after last week’s column on portion sizes found in France. The notion of buying less, storing less, ordering less and eating less made sense, even if it’s hard to do in our Big Food environment back home.

But one reader also shared an observation about another difference in the eating style of the French: They eat fewer sweets.

That may be hard to believe, given the French reputation for pastries and fancy, rich desserts. But this reader, who spent six years living in France, watched French mothers serve prunes to their children for dessert.

Face it, most of us don’t choose fruit for dessert, let alone a variety not usually considered a top choice among children or adults. It continues to stand out in her memory because it was so at odds with the way Americans typically eat.

Her comment made me reflect on a similar observation made by a former student of mine who completed her public health degree in France and now works in the U.S. Her complaint: She has a hard time finding pasta sauce, breads and breakfast cereals that don’t contain added sugar.

That was not an issue in France.

The theme was validated last week as I wrapped up my food policy short course with the mostly French students at the University of Bordeaux. One student team, presenting their final project in class, chose to conduct an analysis of U.S. dietary recommendations, with a focus on sugar.

Among their findings: Added sugar intake in France is a fraction of the amount consumed in the U.S. Students marveled at our level of sugar consumption from soft drinks and pointed out links between sugary foods and the incidence of obesity and rotten teeth.

As I reported recently in another column, there is a move underway by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to rethink the way that added sugars are displayed in the nutrient facts label on food packages. Let’s hope it succeeds, because we need to do all we can to cut our sugar intake. Being aware of how much of it we’re eating is a vital first step.

Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a registered dietitian and clinical associate professor of health policy and management at UNC-Chapel Hill. Reach her at suzanne@onthetable.net; follow her on Twitter, @suzannehobbs.

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