The science behind the French approach to kids food

Various bloggers have asked about the scientific basis for the French approach to kids’ food.

Good question!

The issue of children’s food–and children’s health more generally–became a scientific concern in the 19th century, when infant mortality rates in France were the highest in Europe (and high rates of maternal mortality during childbirth were also a serious issue). In response, the French developed the science of ‘puériculture‘ (literally – the science of infant and child health and hygiene); for example, they invented one of the first modern incubators (the ‘Lion’ incubator, named after Alexandre Lion, was the model first used in US hospitals). Historians generally point to the Hôpital des Enfants Malades (Hospital for Sick Children) in Paris as the world’s first paediatric hospital (opened in 1802, it still exists today, as part of the famous Necker hospital). This gradually became a worldwide trend; the first paediatric hospitals opened in the US in Philadelphia (1855) and Boston (1869).

From the outset, French scientists were particularly interested in children’s eating habits, given that good food is one of the core values of French culture. Their research–much of which I cite in my forthcoming book–is fascinating. Some of the best-known researchers are Dr. Claude Fischler (a sociologist with CNRS, who has worked with Dr Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania), Dr. Natalie Rigal (a specialist in developmental child psychology at the University of Paris/Nanterre), and  French oenologist and “taste philosopher” Dr. Jacques Puisais, who created the Institut du Goûtin 1976, and initially developed some of the “taste-training” ideas that are now used in French classrooms. There are many other researchers studying children’s food in France, notably those working at the Institut du Goût in Paris, and the Centre des Sciences du Goût et de l’Alimentation in Dijon.

A few years ago, these researchers did a comparative study of French and American parental feeding practices, and effects on children’s eating habits (de Lauzon-Guillain 2009, full reference below). They were motivated by the fact that no cross-cultural studies of children’s eating habits have been done between France and US (as opposed to cross-cultural studies of adults). They were also motivated by the fact that the differences in rates of obesity and overweight were striking: in 2000, 6.4% of 6–9 year old French children were obese (95th percentile for weight) and 20.6% were overweight (85th percentile), whereas 15.3% of 6–11 year old children in the United States were obese and 30.3% were overweight. (Obesity rates for French children have since stayed stable, or even declined slightly, whereas they have continued to increase in the US).

So, what did the researchers find? Here’s a quote: “US parents (mothers and fathers) reported higher levels of allowing children control over their own food intake, using food to regulate the child’s emotions, and using food as a reward for behavior than French parents. American mothers reported higher levels of teaching their child about nutrition and encouragement of balance and variety. In contrast, French mothers and fathers both reported higher monitoring and higher restriction of their child’s food intake for weight control than US parents, and French fathers reported greater modeling of healthy eating than US fathers.” French parents exerted more control over their children’s food choices (for example: only allowing one snack per day). More research is required to fully understand the links between culture, parenting practices, children’s eating behaviours, and outcomes like weight status–but this study is suggestive of some important issues, such as the use of food as a reward.

There are also many interesting studies on the French approach to fostering a love of variety and new foods in the children–even before they are a year old. Let’s look at the results of one study, published in 2007 in the peer-reviewed (and leading) journal ‘Appetite’ (Maier et al 2007; full reference below). It compared French and German mothers, and found that:

In the first month of weaning, French mothers typically gave their infants 6 different vegetables (the Germans gave 3).

More than 40% of French infants were exposed to between 7 and 12 vegetables, but none of the German infants were given more than six.

During the 28 day study, the French mothers made 18 or more changes in the vegetables they offered from day-to-day. Some made as many as 27 changes. But in Germany, more than 80% of the mothers made fewer than 7 vegetable changes during the course of the study. None made more than 13 changes.

When asked to explain why they choose their particular feeding strategy, the French mothers mentioned taste development (which is prioritized by French paediatricians and parenting books), whereas the German mothers talked about food allergies. But the prevalence of food allergies in infants in Germany and France (and indeed in the US) is the same: somewhere between 5 and 8%.

The take-home message? The French approach focuses on developing a love of a wide range of foods in children before they arrive at that near-universal ‘no’ stage at around the age of two. Their approach suggests that we should be thinking more about taste development and less about food allergies.

These studies illustrate a key point: the French approach children’s food is a set of codified common sense rules and routines that parents can easily follow, but it is based on over 200 years of scientific research–which governments have transmitted to French parents through extensive outreach (e.g. the first modern network of what would now be called ‘maternal and child health’ centres). We don’t need to accept everything they do unquestioningly, but it is an interesting example that we could learn from. And, the results of French research correspond with emerging American research–a topic I’ll blog about in a future post.

Finally, I should note that no approach to kids’ food is perfect. There is a lot of conflicting information out there, from different sources. And even scientists take different approaches; sociologists and psychologists study children’s eating habits from a different perspective than medical researchers, for example. The key is to inform yourself about a variety of perspectives, and then to make an informed choice.

The studies referenced above are:
Blandine de Lauzon-Guillain PhD, Dara Musher-Eizenman PhD, Emeline Leporc MSc, Shayla Holub PhD and Marie Aline Charles MD. (2009) Parental Feeding Practices in the United States and in France: Relationships with Child’s Characteristics and Parent’s Eating Behavior. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 109(6), 1064-1066; and Maier, A., C. Chabanet, B. Schaal, P. Leathwood, and S. Issanchou. 2007. “Food-Related Sensory Experience From Birth Through Weaning: Contrasted Patterns in Two Nearby European Regions.” Appetite 49: 429-40.

For a cross-cultural study in English, see:

  • Dara R. Musher-Eizenman, Blandine de Lauzon-Guillain, Shayla Holub, et al., “Child and Parent Characteristics Related to Parental Feeding Practices: A Cross-Cultural Examination in the US and France,” Appetite 52 (2009): 89–95.

Some references to scientific studies by French researchers (mostly in French, unfortunately!):

  • Official historical website of French paediatric hospitals:
  • Claude FISCHLER L’Homnivore. Le goût, la cuisine et le corps, Paris, Odile Jacob, 1990.
  • Claude FISCHLER Manger. Français, Européens et Américains face à l’alimentation, with Estelle Masson, Paris, Odile Jacob, 2008.
  • Lyon MURARD et Patrick ZYLBERMAN, L’Hygiène dans la République, 1870-1918, Paris, Fayard, 1996.
  • Jacques PUISAIS Le goût chez les enfants (Paris: Flammarion, 2000
  • Natalie RIGAL La naissance du goût: comment donner aux enfants le plaisir de manger Paris: Agnès Viénot, 2000.
  • Gaston VARIOT, Projet d’un Institut de Puériculture aux Enfants-Assistés, Paris, Imprimerie A. Davy, 1908.
  • Paul STRAUSS, Dépopulation et puériculture, Paris, Bibliothèque Charpentier, Eugène Fasquelle éditeur, 1901.

For those of you interested in more discussions about the science of food, visit Dr Dina Rose’s blog: It’s Not About Nutrition. Lots of great information and resources here!