Due to the rise in processed food intake, ANSES warned that people’s ability to understand and interpret nutritional guidelines - often given for whole or unprocessed foods such as fruit and vegetables - may be affected.
“This [increased frequency of processed food consumption] contributes to creating a distance between individuals and their food, notably in terms of an understanding of what the food is made of,” the report reads.
However, the ANSES definition of processed food is broad, encompassing homemade and traditionally-made dishes as well as industrially processed food and meals eaten at fast food outlets. It includes foods such as soups, sandwiches, pizzas and savoury or sweet pastries and biscuits and dairy-based desserts.
The full report can be read here (in French).
More than 5,800 people (3157 adults between the ages of 18 and 79 years and 2698 children between the ages of 0 and 17 years) took part in the national survey between 2014 and 2015. The participants were asked 150 questions about their lifestyle and eating habits and a total of 13,600 days of food intake were recorded, generating data for 320,000 foods consumed.
INCA surveys are carried out every seven years: INCA1 (1998-1999), INCA2 (2006-2007) and INCA3 (2014-2015).
The results, published last month, will be used by ANSES's experts to conduct government requests regarding food-related nutritional, physico-chemical or microbiological risks in metropolitan France.
Too much salt and not enough fibre
Analysis of fat and sugar intake will be carried out at a later date as part of future opinions, ANSES scientists said, but they could draw conclusions for salt and fibre: French people are eating too much and too little, respectively.
Salt intake was estimated to be at 9 g a day in men and 7 g a day in women, which is above the objectives set by the French National Health and Nutrition Programme (8 g/day for men and 6.5 g/day for women on average).
According to the survey, the main foods contributing to high salt intake are bread and crisp breads, sandwiches, pizzas and savoury pastries, condiments and sauces, soups, and delicatessen meats.
“Efforts undertaken by the relevant professional sectors to reduce the salt content of foods should therefore be continued and scaled up,” it said.
Fibre intake (17 g a day in adolescents and 20 g per day in adults aged 18 to 79 years) was also below the recommended daily level of 30 g for adults.
“It is therefore important to continue encouraging professional sectors to increase the fibre content of foods and advising consumers to opt for high-fibre foods, such as fruits and vegetables, pulses and high-fibre cereal products),” the agency said.
The survey also highlighted regional differences in France, a country whose borders span the Mediterranean Sea in the south to its Germanic neighbours in the north-east.
French people living in the north-west regions eat more cured meats, such as salami, than other regions. Those in the north-east eat fewer fruit and vegetables but more potatoes than the rest of the country.
Urban populations eat more fish, sweets and chocolate while rural populations eat more cured meats but also more fruit and vegetables.
This regional difference can also be seen in obesity levels, with lower levels in the greater Paris area (10%) and the south-east (also 10%) and higher levels in the north-east (22%).
Hunting, fishing and foraging
According to the findings, nearly three quarters of all respondents reported having eaten foods that they grew, foraged, caught or fished themselves or by a friend or relative at least once a month in the 12 months preceding the survey.
The most common foods of this type were fruit, vegetables and eggs.
Meanwhile, more than 80% of individuals aged 15 to 79 also eat raw foods of animal origin, such as eggs (usually in the form of chocolate mousse and mayonnaise), fish (around one third of which is prepared as sushi), seafood such as oysters and beef. Raw, animal-based foods are most popular among men with a high level of education or socio-professional status.
Raw minced beef served with a raw egg on top is a French specialty known as steak tartare.