Equation Nutrition n° 15
September 2007

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N° 15 | September 2007

Cultural shifts in shopping habits, cooking skills and food preparation

The health benefits of fruit and vegetables are well documented, but the barriers to increasing their consumption still remain a challenge. One such barrier is that they are reportedly time-consuming to prepare and consequently, people may feel that they do not have the skills in order to create meals ‘from scratch’1. This article explores some of these issues by drawing on recently published work on cultural and culinary practices in Southern France and Central England, proposing links with obesity.

Cross-cultural Culinary practices

Food choices diverge throughout Europe and socio-cultural determinants are known to influence these patterns. Due to changing working patterns, particularly for women, responsibilities for food related activities in the home have changed, resulting in a ‘de-skilling’ of certain food preparation tasks in favour of ‘convenience’. Termed in the UK as a ‘cooking skills transition’2, this may contribute to the nation’s increasing obesity prevalence. The food culture in France, on the other hand, has been long established as a social and convivial entity, although some changes are apparent.

Southern France has been shown to have a healthier diet than central England3 including the intake of fruit and vegetables. In the south, however, it seems that younger people are departing from this traditional healthy ‘Mediterranean model’4 in favour of American-style ‘convenience’ and fast food. Further investigation of these 2 countries has demonstrated different attitudes and beliefs to food and health: the Southern French being more prepared to make time for cooking and attach more value to cooking from ‘raw ingredients’ than central England5 and this appears to be more marked in older generations, which concurs with the above study4.

A comparison of the cultural aspects of meal patterns and cooking practices has highlighted some interesting contrasts between these two geographical areas6. Eating together as a household, preparation of meals, food purchasing patterns, cooking practices and eating-out patterns were investigated for this purpose, using responses to a postal questionnaire consisting of 826 central English subjects and 766 Southern French subjects, aged 18-65 years. Analyses were conducted on samples standardised for socio-demographic differences. Some key results are presently summarised and discussed.

Eating together as a household and mealtimes

More French than English respondents reported eating together as a household on a daily basis. Similarly the French were more likely to follow a regular meal pattern of three meals a day. This supports the pleasurable aspects of eating5 being important values for the French and, that traditional practices are being replaced by new structures in the UK, based on ‘convenience’.

Cooking habits and food preparation

More French respondents reported that they cooked a meal from raw ingredients on a daily basis than the English, who tended to use readyprepared and take-away meals more often. This supports changing structures, not surprising as the British population consumes more ‘convenience’ food than any other in Europe. It also, perhaps, highlights the pride associated with the French cuisine. More females in both countries were responsible for food purchase and preparation of meals, which suggests a persistence of gender differentiation within the domestic setting with regard to food provision7. This was particularly defined in France for cooking meals ‘from scratch’, which highlights ‘convenience’ as being more prominent in England and may accentuate the ‘cooking skills transition’ previously described2.

Snacking

Energy dense snack food items, such as crisps and confectionary were consumed more often by the English, which is perhaps not surprising as subsequent investigations have found them to be more widely available for purchase in Central England than Southern France8. Similarly, availability of fruit and vegetables was found to be comparable between the two countries suggesting that this is not necessarily a barrier to their consumption in England8. These latter findings demonstrate the impact of the food environment on obesity, and are alarming, as energy density is associated with obesity and increasing fruit and vegetable consumption is thought to enhance weight management efforts9. Attention needs to focus on the way certain foods are marketed and advertised, with particular reference to their impact on cooking skills in the UK. There is also a requirement to ensure that in France, maintenance of traditional cooking practices is encouraged.

In conclusion, some of the findings from this study confirm popular stereotypes of French and English food cultures. The cultural differences, particularly cooking ‘from scratch’ and ‘convenience’ may partly explain the higher prevalence of adult obesity in England than France. Public health practitioners need to include cooking skills into their frame of reference when developing interventions and policies to increase fruit and vegetable consumption. Internationally, the dissemination of information relating to the cultural contexts of obesity needs to become a key feature for policy makers and professionals alike. Without such due consideration, the obesity epidemic will continue to escalate throughout Europe.

  1. Short F. Domestic Cooking skills. Journal of the Home Economics. Institute of Australia. 2003; 10:13-22.
  2. Caraher M, Dixon P, Lang T. The state of cooking in England: the relationship of cooking skills to food choice. British Food Journal. 1999;101:590-609.
  3. Holdsworth M, Gerber M, Haslam C, Scali J, Beardsworth A, Avalone MH, et al.
    A comparison of dietary behaviour in Central England and a French Mediterranean region. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2000; 54:1-10.
  4. Scali, J., Richard, A. & Gerber, M. (2000) Diet profiles in a population sample from Mediterranean southern France. Public Health Nutrition, 4, 173-82.
  5. Pettinger, C., Holdsworth, M. & Gerber, M. (2004) Psycho-social influences on food choice in Southern France and Central England. Appetite, 42, 307-16.
  6. Pettinger, C., Holdsworth, M. & Gerber, M. (2006) Meal patterns and cooking practices in Southern France and Central England, Public Health Nutrition, 9(8), 1020-1026.
  7. Rozin, P., Fischler, C., Imada, S., Sarubin, A. & Wresniewski, A. (1999) Attitudes to food and the role of food in life in the USA, Japan, Flemish Belgium and France: possible implications for the diet-health debate. Appetite, 33, 163-80.
  8. Pettinger, C., Holdsworth, M. & Gerber, M. (in press) ‘All under one roof?’ Differences in food availability and shopping practices in Southern France and Central England. European Journal of Public Health.
  9. Rolls, B.J., Ello-Martin, J.A. & Honhill, B.C. (2004). What can intervention studies tell us about the relationship between fruit and vegetable consumption and weight management. Nutrition Reviews, 62(1) 1-17.
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