Sunday, June 21, 2009

Warning: Please Exercise Caution When Eating this Food

During a recent trip to France I noticed something new while standing in the Metro station. Billboards for foods like cereal, ice cream, and candy drew me in with clever tag lines and mouth-watering photos, just as they do in the U.S. But what was starkly different was the cautionary advice that was slapped on the bottom in easy-to-read print: "For your health, avoid eating too much fat, too much sugar, too much salt."

Initially, I thought this was geared to only a certain group of foods deemed unhealthy. But, throughout the course of my stay, I came to see similar subtitles nearly everywhere I looked. "For your health, eat at least five fruits and vegetables a day," commanded a billboard for a popular line of frozen entrees. "For your health, avoid snacking between meals," advised a poster of a McFlurry in front of a Parisian McDonalds.

I later learned that the taglines are a requirement of the French government in an effort to curb the growing problem of obesity. Currently over 9 percent of French qualify as obese. While that may not sound like a lot compared to the 32 percent of Americans who currently earn that distinction, the French aren't waiting around for things to worsen. France’s recommendation affects advertisements on television, radio, billboards and the Internet for processed, sweetened or salted food and drinks. Advertisers who refuse to run the mandated messages are reportedly fined 1.5 percent of the cost of the ad.

Some of my French friends thought this campaign was utterly laughable as a means of helping individuals make better food choices. But for an American who feels no protection from her government when it comes to regulating what we eat, this feels like a hopeful first step.