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  • Writer's pictureRachel Ogilby

Food For Thought: American Cuisine from a French Vantage Point

Ohhhh France, and your yummy baguettes, cheese, wine… le sigh.


I’m struggling to figure out how to write this article in a way that brings awareness and interest versus despair and frustration (I constantly find myself pendulum-ing - is that a word? - back and forth from these two mindsets while living in France as an American).  


We’ve been living in Paris for two and a half years now. We’ve discovered many things about ourselves and the way both our past and our “normal” shapes our expectations for our lives. I could (and likely will) spend the rest of my life discussing the differences between life in US vs Europe. When it comes to quality of life and the services made available for its citizens, I can’t help but wonder how the US still has so far to go.



Reverse Culture Shocks

We recently spent a few weeks in the United States to visit family. We expected some reverse culture shocks and knew that we now viewed the world through different lenses; after living in France, we’ve experienced a government that uses taxpayer money to make our lives better. We’ve lived in a culture that supports families, financially and socially.


There’s many habits and systems in place that improve the quality of life for Parisians– they are so woven into the fabric of the French culture that even they don’t see its impact like we (the foreigners) do until I point it out!


I could talk about each individual system on its own for hours – affordable childcare, socialized healthcare, cost of living, public transportation, bodily autonomy, access to services, safety for my babies, etc. However, today I am pivoting my energy to something that could be considered so insignificant and yet impacts us three, four, five times or more a day.


It’s food.

I might know what you’re thinking... Yeah yeah, French food is known for being thoughtful and tasty. That’s because that’s part of their culture; they love talking about food, cooking food, eating food.


Yes! You’re right. However, that’s such a small part of the reason that the food is so different. The French consider food in a logical and practical way – in season and local. And it’s not just related to France. What do you hear, related to food, from people who have visited Italy? How about Spain? Greece? Portugal? There’s some commonalities in many places that are outside the United States – the food.



Eating Produce When It’s In Season

There’s so many paths I could go down as I describe the differences in food. One is the use of seasonal produce. Restaurants in France have rotating menus – you would never expect a menu to be the same year round, because produce is seasonal and the taste and flavor of a particular food item matters more than the necessity of it being on the menu at all times.


An example of this realization was while in the US visiting during December. We visited a restaurant that I love. It had the same Berry Salad listed on the menu as it did in August (when we last visited). I was confused; was this was served year round? I asked the employee to help me decide between two dishes, and I asked about the salad. She admitted, no, of course the berries aren’t in season – order the other dish if you want to make sure your meal is flavorful and fresh!


This consideration would never have gone through my mind before moving to Europe. It’s not that serving something year round is wrong – it’s just something you would not come across in Paris. There are likely more economic and environmental variables that go into it as well; I assume eating seasonal must be better for our wallets, our biodiversity, and our environment.



Food Dyes and Additives

Picture this: You hold in your right hand a bag of gummy bears that were purchased in Europe. The ingredients include fruit juice from apples, strawberries, raspberries, oranges, lemons, and pineapples to flavor them and give them their color.


In your left hand you hold another bag of gummy bears by the same producer. However, these were bought in the USA. These same gummy bears contain ingredients such as palm oil, wax, and food dyes including yellow 5, red 40, and blue 1.


Does this matter? Well, yes. Studies have shown that food dyes we consume in the United States have been tied to health problems (for example, yellow food dye is correlated to behavioral issues in children). Pregnant women are advised to avoid them. And yet, they still reside in our food.


There are literal warning labels placed on USA candy products in Europe because there is research to show that they are detrimental to our health.



Agricultural Customs; GMOs and local and organic farming

A third path I’d like to take with you is the agricultural customs here. France is the largest agricultural producer in the EU and has banned genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Organic farming has doubled in France in the last five years due to encouragement from government policies and France is the third largest market for organic produce. Short food circuits were created by the French government to help encourage the consumption of local food. These practices certainly affect the quality of the produce and the way it interacts with our bodies.


Gluten

Take gluten, for example. Many people have gluten sensitivities in the United States, but its not as common in Europe. The rate of gluten intolerance in France is 0.33%, and 0.75% in the United States (it doesn’t sound like a large gap, but it is!). There are many theories of why this is.


One is the type of wheat that is grown in Europe versus the USA; American wheat literally has more gluten in it. Another is the reality that American wheat is commonly exposed to glyphosate (a chemical used on genetically modified crops). Glycosphate is banned or heavily restricted in many European countries, as it can disrupt bacteria in our guts and disrupt our immune system.


This can even cause autoimmune diseases to “turn on” in our bodies for those of us who are predisposed to it (like me!). I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease in 2020 and had my thyroid removed shortly after. While we’ll never know exactly what triggered the disease, autoimmune diseases can be triggered by stress on the body and environmental agents (like genetically modified organisms).



While living in America I discovered I was dairy, gluten and soy intolerant. However, once moving to France, I’ve been able to eat the majority of foods in these categories without an issue.


I could go on and on about the items that are in our food as Americans but would be unusual (or illegal) here in Europe. I was surprised that as a health-conscious person I didn’t understand the gravity of how huge the quality gap was until moving away and returning.


Real Life Examples That Made Me Pause

While visiting the United States I discovered that the whipped cream I had used in my hot chocolate for years never dissolved. I had become accustomed to the French whipped cream, with the ingredients of… cream… and now looked at the American version with confusion. Once I read the label and discovered the stabilizers and emulsifiers used, it made sense.


This happened many times with many different foods. A friend brought over a bakery item that I thought was a strange color – when I read the ingredients I realized how many chemicals and food dyes were in it. I couldn’t fathom eating any.


I say this not to sound snobby, or “too good” for American food… but as a wake up call to myself and others to realize that there are a lot of sneaky ways (and outright blatant ways) that the American food system has deceived us.


As we plan our repatriation into the United States, I find myself wondering how I will protect my family from the warfare of chemicals and additives in our food. And, how can I do this in a way that doesn’t negatively impact my children’s relationship with food?


It’s a question I haven’t yet found an answer to. I feel especially grateful that we’ve begun the lives of our two babies in a country that has policies and systems in place to protect their health. They’ve begun their journey on this planet without unnecessary exposure to toxins in their food.



As an American living abroad, exposed to new “normals”, I’ve also discovered that I have new expectations for our leaders. I also have new expectations for the quality of life for the people I love. Why should my friends, family, and children have to worry about the food they’re putting in their bodies?


As a nurse (and a doctorate-prepared one at that), I feel the pull to advocate for my fellow Americans and begin the journey of affecting policy change.


I would be lying if I said I knew where to start. Sometimes, in the darkest moments, I think it must be too late. The gap between our elite and our poor continues to widen, and I know many of the very organizations meant to protect Americans are also intertwined with political agendas. I sometimes wonder if the food system is in cahoots with Big Pharma and the American healthcare system which is so broken. But I will, before we move back, find next steps to both protect my family and advocate for others.


Until then, I will enjoy the local, in-season food around me. We Americans could take a few tips from the French, who somehow find a way to both meticulously present and prepare food while being practical. Incroyable!






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