La malbouffe

If there is a subject on which the French generally agree, it is the evils of ‘la malbouffe’. ‘Bouffe’ is slang for eating and the term ‘malbouffe’ has come to symbolize the poor eating habits of a fast-food generation.

Et oui – junk food is a problem even here in France, the land of good eats and gastronomic traditions. While most kids at school get a hot lunch, and families still sit down for a home-cooked dinner, the rise in the number of fast-food chains dominated by ‘le Mcdo’ is undeniable. What is worse, in my books, is the price wars through ‘promos’ in the supermarket chains.

France is served by a number of supermarket chains selling everything from diapers to donuts: Carrefour, Auchan, Leclerc, Intermarché, Casino and Super U. From the corner shop to the hypermarket, there is one of these shops in every French town.

You may have heard about the Nutella war that took place a few weeks ago when one store offered a kilo of the stuff at below cost. People flocked to get the deal, and scenes like this ensued:

Et oui! Hallucinant!

It is indeed telling. Not only that this kind of garbage (and I use the word intentionally for any food whose first ingredient is sugar) is consumed so massively, but that economic conditions are such that people would fight over it.

In this France is no different from anywhere else.

But France being France, there is a backlash. One of its mascots is Richard Ramos, a deputy fo the governing party from the department of Loiret in north-central France. Ramos came to fame this past weekend when, during an appearance on the  (excellent) political talk show, C’est Politique, he spread the ‘fake news’ of a so-called toxic preservative used in prepared foods. E330 or citric acid, as it turns out, is not toxic or even carcinogenic. It can cause the enamel of your teeth to erode.

His reputation took a hit but you can’t deny the wave on which he is riding. Ramos, and many others like him, want supermarkets to stop selling off crap like Nutella at cost and start paying a fair price to farmers. To draw attention to this cause, last October he drove a truck full of onions into a supermarket parking lot and dumped them – inviting shoppers to come and help themselves. The message was that the hard-working paysans who grow our food are not able to earn a living wage due to mass-consumerism and the greed of the supermarkets.

Add to the woes of these farmers the growing number of dairy and meat producers who can’t compete with cheaper EU imports and can barely make ends meet —  and you have the makings of a national tragedy.

One that will not be solved by cheap Nutella and a hamburger to go.

What do you think? How can we ensure that agricultural producers make a decent living from their labours? Boycott the big stores? Buy direct? Make greed illegal?



  1. francetaste · February 15, 2018

    Making greed illegal is kind of like whack-a-mole–you get it one place and it pops up somewhere else. But it’s the basic tenet under a lot of regulation. The other option is to ignore it, and that’s a worse mess.
    Supermarket margins generally are around 1%-3%, which isn’t much. Certain individual items may have higher margins, while the lowest margins are for the most basic foods, which also are the healthiest.
    Profit margins for companies that process and manufacture food are higher but not huge (generally under 10%).
    Subsidies to farmers can help, but they also can distort the market–farmers will grow more of whatever gets subsidized.
    Another concern is the accelerating construction on farmland. Once land has been paved over for parking lots, shopping centers and lotissements, it can’t easily go back to producing food. Municipalities take a short-terrm, local view of growth, growth, growth, so the problem needs to be dealt with from a national level.

    • MELewis · February 15, 2018

      I’m not naïve enough to believe you can begin to make greed illegal — regulate it, yes, and France does do a lot of that in other areas. Generally too many market controls is not something I’m comfortable with. But, when a farmer gets 20 centimes for a kg of onions and the supermarket sells it for 2.40, and then that farmer gets a take home income of 350 EUR per month, something is just wrong. I’m surprised that the margins of the big chains are so small. Nonetheless, as a consumer I would rather pay more and have less in order for them to take home a fair living, and to ensure that we continue to have quality products grown locally. Not sure everyone would agree – and with apologies to those who simply can’t afford to pay more.

      • francetaste · February 15, 2018

        The question is where is the rest of the 2.20 of onion price going to and why? Transport, warehousing, and what else?
        I think regulation is important–I prefer clean air, clean water, clean food, safe products. I just admit that it isn’t easy and that there are always unintended consequences. But still, it’s better than nothing.

  2. Osyth · February 15, 2018

    Thank you for writing this. My personal soapbox is hatred of supermarkets. I describe Tesco (Britain) as the fourth political power so great is their influence. They shed tears and spat their dummies when Lidl and Aldo started taking substantial market share when they upped their own game but of course both of those are villains in my pantomime too. My personal mantra is to consume food from as close the land that I walk on as possible. Problem solved. No more crap, no more farmers and growers going out of business. And by the way, I abhor waste too …. all that pointless packaging which thank god people seem to finally be waking up to that fills landfills the size of the Great Lakes and is annihilating the oceans. I could go on and on but your question is what can we do …. until we ban greed, ban selfishness until we understand that we don’t NEED all this crap that we can survive perfectly well with very little then we don’t have a cat’s chance in hell. And waking up too late is waking up too late … when it’s gone, it’s gone – is that what people really want? There are none so blind as those that will not see they say and I’m afraid that most simply don’t have any intention of taking the greed goggles off. And breathe …… ❤️

    • MELewis · February 15, 2018

      I agree 100%. That said, I am going to pretend that I never shop at the supermarket. Au contraire! Where else would I find exotic ingredients coconut oil, for one thing? 😉 And for another, who has time to shop multiple stores all the time? But I happily go direct to the farm or the market when I can and would pay more if needed to ensure these hard-working people get a fair wage for their blood, sweat and tears. You raise an excellent point about the packaging, which is ridiculous. One of my bugbears in the supermarket is how hard it is to find packets of coffee that are not capsules or pods. Just plain coffee! Wherever there’s a margin to be made, it seems commercial interests will flock. And consumers follow. Which is fine – we live in a version of the market economy after all. But the empire needs to strike back when it comes to what really matters, and as you rightly point out, when it’s gone that’s it. As my belle-mère used to say, ‘T’auras que tes yeux pour pleurer!”

  3. coteetcampagne · February 15, 2018

    I concur with everything Osyth says above
    Further, I do go into the supermarket if it’s persisting down and the uncovered market is washed out.

    I am also obliged to go in there for Trev’s gluten free bread etc as there is no alternative, apart from the uncut gluten free loaves sold by the bios that cost a fortune and go off within 24 hours: thus creating waste as there are limited things one can do with stale gluten free bread !
    ( please other comment buddies do not lecture me about using it up as bread and butter pudding or breadcrumbs or croutons which don’t work well with these breads!!!)

    I think there is a place for supermarkets for certain circumstances. My elderly neighbours occasionally use them as its easier than traipsing round a dozen different shops or market stalls. They also use our small village shop and that is why it survives. For now.

    I hope the circle will come back around and that more French folk will appreciate that they can buy fresh with no food miles and with provenance in place. It is becoming fashionable in the UK to go back to the markets and farm stores for food and I applaud that.

    Of course the other reason for supermarket shopping is the savings for the individual. Having skated around poverty on more than one occasion, sometimes with kids to feed, I can make this obvious point from heartfelt personal experience.
    If the powers that be can support the little food producers to make affordable fresh food available to those who can’t afford “bio” then that would be a good start.

    Sorry, rant over now, but I get very frustrated by people who have never been short of money for the basics of food, fuel ad a roof over their head pontificating about the desperate struggle to make ends meet that some of us have EVERY DAY!

    Sorry Mel.

    • Osyth · February 15, 2018

      Don’t apologise, Gill – I know how it is too. So easy to be a couch liberal with no clue as to what the really poor are going through and how desperate you can be just to feed your children enough and the only way is to buy whatever is cheapest – enter the dragon 🐉 aka the supermarkets. In the end it is up to those with much to ensure that those with less are catered for. And that is where most of the haves exit swiftly stage right. On your bread problem. You don’t have time at the moment but when you are more relaxed, I will happily share the recipes that I use for bread for my gluten intolerant daughter and no, they aren’t hard – I don’t do complicated cooking which is why I don’t blog food 😂 I agree it is impossible to buy gluten friendly products in France that don’t bankrupt you anywhere other than supermarkets. X

      • coteetcampagne · February 15, 2018

        When we actually have an oven, I will make some bread!!! And probably crack open the bubbles!

    • MELewis · February 15, 2018

      Rant away! No apologies needed. I think we agree that allowances must be made for budgets and personal situations. I am fortunate to be able to pay more for quality, even organic food at least for now — who knows about the future? — but that does not prevent me from empathising with those who work hard and don’t reap the benefits of their labours. There but for the grace of…go I.

  4. poshbirdy · February 15, 2018

    Oh dear me, don’t get me started! The supermarkets have been manipulating suppliers for a long time and their methods include not only driving down the suppliers’ costs, but also – and this makes me sick – dictating their own payment terms. This means that when someone invoices them the ‘biggies’ (not onyl supermarkets but many internationals) decide that they will pay on their own terms, which are often months later. This means that small suppliers are forced into borrowing to survive. Crazy!
    And yes, I agree completely with Osyth that the packaging element of our foods is ludicrous, irresponsible and frankly unforgivable. We make it a mission at home to choose items less packed wherever possible, especially since recycling is still far more of a smokescreen than a reality.
    Phew!! I feel better now, thanks!

    • MELewis · February 15, 2018

      Glad you feel better — that is always the goal of this blog! 😉 But I do feel that this topic strikes a chord among all of us who care about what we eat and whose interests we support in keeping ourselves well-nourished. Something needs to change – not quite sure what, but food for thought.

  5. midihideaways · February 15, 2018

    It would be lovely to be able to make greed illegal, but that’ll never happen – I think greed is part of nature, just watch most animals feed! As to the slipping food standards – Elizabeth David was already bemoaning the decline of food in France back in the 50’s!! The general dumbing down means that lots of people are now unable to recognise good food or ingredients, and aren’t able to prepare anything with the wonderful ingredients which can be bought inexpensively. Bring back home economics and make it a compulsory subject for boys and girls!! 🙂

    • MELewis · February 15, 2018

      Dear Elizabeth David. I have one of her cookbooks on my shelf – what a treasure! You are right, greed is built in to the animal world. But surely as humans we should have an empathy gene that kicks in at some point? I do like your idea of teaching home ec again in schools — but instead of learning how to hem a skirt, how to shop smart and balance a budget. Along with driver’s ed and some form of civics, so that regardless of religion there is a common moral thread.

  6. coteetcampagne · February 15, 2018

    Being VERY old I recall home ecomoicd. Bring it back I say…

  7. coteetcampagne · February 15, 2018

    Or even (predictive text permitting) home economics… !

    • MELewis · February 16, 2018

      Ha, ha….like you, I am old enough to remember home ec classes, although only in the US – we didn’t have them in Canada. My memories include a failed dirndl skirt and a hysterical teacher who wanted us to approach cooking like science. Bof! (Also remember typing class — now that was a win!)

  8. acflory · February 16, 2018

    Here in Australia, Farmers’ Markets are becoming very popular, both for the quality of the food and for the enjoyment value of walking around an outdoor ‘market’ with a real atmosphere.
    I know that small traders used to be very common in France 40 years ago. Are there still market gardeners selling their wares on the footpaths [at times]?
    I also remember being enthralled by the marche held in Perigueux – fruit vegetables and geese, ducks all sorts of farm produce. Do they still happen?

    • MELewis · February 16, 2018

      Oh, yes! I don’t specifically know about Perigueux but virtually all French towns have open-air markets – at least once in the week. Ours in on Sunday morning, which means I go when I make it a priority. When the season is in full swing, fall and spring, it’s truly wonderful, although as Kiki points out, some of vendors are not actual farmers but just traders selling produce from the wholesale market. Still, even there you get a far better selection and cheaper prices than in the supermarkets. My favourite stall is the one with the longest lineup – an organic farm from our area, with wonderful produce and friendly people to boot!

      • acflory · February 16, 2018

        Oh I’m so relieved! Those open air markets were/are amongst my fondest memories of France. I’m not completely food obsessed, but somehow all my memories of my travels seem to have food in them somewhere or other. 😀

  9. Kiki · February 16, 2018

    I read this just before going to bed – so I took the whole problematic to bed, so to speak…. not a good idea! As it was nearly 1am I had this mixture of the choir rehearsal’s impact AND the ‘cold truth’ of your post to battle with and sleep mostly eluded me.
    There, I’m back now and instead of just saying YOU ARE SO RIGHT MEL (which you are, incidentally), I share some experience of my Swiss life with you – it might give some impulses to the one or other (or not).
    When we moved to France 10yrs ago we were (and are) appalled by the casualness with which most people are violating the ‘natural laws’. For a long time, I did my fruit and veg shopping mostly on the market and a dedicated ‘primeur’ – that was until, when I asked him about the provenance of a particular vegetable and why he was selling a Spanish product when it was in season in France, he told me: I don’t want the French stuff any more. It’s all rubbish quality, it doesn’t last, it’s never as fresh as the imported stuff, etc etc etc….. AND they are cheaper too. When I replied that I was coming especially to him BECAUSE of shorter delivery ways and because of being French (they have their shop right next to large fields with varying products throughout the year! For God’s sake…), he added: If you had a business you’d soon realise that you couldn’t live off selling ‘our products’ only.
    Well, that was then! I don’t know how they fare now but it’s now his ex-wife having the shop and she is a real battle ax, so I have no incentive to check in on them.
    Plastic: In CH they have a (totally over-) refined rubbish collecting procedure. In some places, small private ‘entrepreneurs’ sell little bags at 10CHF ‘just’ for plastic, containers, foils, coverings. So my sis-in-law fills them with very, very compacted plastic bits and when I asked her why she wd do that, on top of the already elaborate sorting of everything demanded, she said that it would cost her about the same as just putting it with the general rubbish, which in the whole of Switzerland, is paid for by the consumer directly in form of differently priced rubbish bags (marked and marketed by the local shops and v expensive). We then sort out: Cardboard in one collection, papers but no plastic film of envelopes, just papers and newspapers, glass (but not oil bottles etc), cans, whenever possible and available also compost, and finally everything else that comes up in a household. Papers, bundled in a ‘prescribed’ format and tied with ONE allowed form of tie (no plastic cords….for instance), will be collected once or twice per month and must be placed outside only the day of collection at 7am….!!!! Same thing with cardboard…. all tied up ‘comme il faut’…. A woman who put her paper outside the evening before AND put smaller cardboards into a larger one, which she didn’t tie up with the reglementary cord was fined several hundreds of CHF – it made our national headlines (yep, aren’t we lucky to be bothered by such details!!! These are the days I’m not proud to be Swiss). Glass must be brought to bottle banks – PET bottles large and small must be squashed and the lid must be on, thus they may be brought to the shops where special containers are provided. As you pay dearly for those rubbish bags, they must be very sturdy, since everybody squeezes the dear life of every bit of rubbish which makes them weigh many kilos. Same rules for putting the rubbish bags out (2x per week): Not before 7am, certainly not the night before – because, for heaven’s sake: It could rain, the neighbours’s cats could have a go at them, the could roll onto the street…. 🙂
    This all is terribly bothersome for us, but it also made ppl very conscious of what they schlepp home! Many unwrap their shopping after passing the cashier’s desk and leave the wrappings in especially provided large bins. Every little bag costs, so you bring your baskets/trolley/bags with you. Many re-use their paperbags for bread and vegs. It’s a blxxy pain in the backside BUT it works.
    Thus our shock and horror at the cavalier attitude of the French. BUT it has to be said: Since our arrival things have been and are looking up, we live in hope!
    Organic (biologique in French) or not: As my mother in law said: Not everything that’s ‘bio’ is also ‘logique’. 2 days ago, I bought Bio-garlic, because it came from France, not because it was organic. The non organic stuff came from Spain and the one single sad ‘tresse’ of French garlic available was in such a sad state with cloves having fallen off by the dozen that I wouldn’t want to buy it. The organic one was not even much more expensive but fresh and looked tasty and inviting. But I have no problem of buying anything coming from not the other end of the world, organic or not, as long as the travel miles, the freshness and the price are in any relation to each other. I also put a great importance to my ‘rapport’ with the seller, I haven’t been back to one flower seller at the market because of her terrible attitude towards several customers.
    Let’s stop here; I have more than a full day ahead of me and it’s already halfway gone….

    • MELewis · February 16, 2018

      Your comment made me smile, Kiki! First of all your reaction, and then the detailed picture you paint of the Swiss and recycling. I must confess this is not all news to me, as while we live in France near the border with Geneva, my husband works near Zug and we sometimes spend the weekend there. Husband who is French HATES taking out the recycling, so he always lets it pile up in the apartment until one of my weekends there. Off we go to the ‘hoekihof’? (My German is very poor – my Swiss even worse!) and I can see for myself the art form to which the Swiss have raised recycling. It is crazy! Clear glass, coloured glass — everything is sorted! Not to mention the super expensive garbage bags (bin liners for the Brits) that you must stuff full of waste to get your money’s worth. I must say I dream of one day in France having the simple blue box, like we have in Canada, where you place your empties and the garbage man comes and picks it up!

      As for fresh foods, I do try and go to the organic farm stall at the Sunday morning market near us. The people are lovely, the produce is amazing…and I avoid the ones who simply resell whatever they can get at the wholesalers. Although I have no issues about eating berries out of season, I’d rather get them from Spain than Peru! And in season we have a farm near us that is just next to a shopping centre where I stop every week and pick up fresh fruit. Not organic but sustainable or agriculture ‘raisonnée’. The woman there explained to me once that getting ‘bio’ certification is a huge and heavy process that they don’t feel able to go through. But I can understand this. As long as food is grown locally, and sold by people who care that it is fresh and good, it deserves our support!

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and uniquely Franco-Suisse views on this (huge) topic!

      • Kiki · February 16, 2018

        Your mention of Peru made me cringe with embarrassment…. One year, post Christmas, we returned from Switzerland to England (by car) and on our way, crossing France, we passed a market. One seller literally ‘threw’ Peruvian asparagus after the customers and I had strong views on products not in season, which I discussed with the seller….. (already then, it must have been before 2005 because then we returned from UK to CH, only my French must have been atrocious but hey, things matter!!!). He said to me and I never forgot that: But Madame, they are glad in Peru to be able to sell something at all and if we don’t take them, they starve!!!! When I said that the very low price he asked was an insult to the producer, he quietened me by saying that ‘these asparagus will be thrown away if I can’t sell them today. They were the ‘leftovers/returns’ from restaurants in France and he was taking them off their hands….. Needless to say that I bought two bunches, took them back to Devon, UK and we ate them the day after our return. They were absolutely delicious but I cannot EVER since see asparagus from Peru without a cold shiver running down my back….. The feeling of having done something nearly unlawful (in my own book of conduct) is living on, years and years later!

  10. Heide · February 16, 2018

    I wish it were possible to make greed illegal, but because it’s been a constant throughout centuries of history I think it’s unlikely we’ll ever fully be rid of it. But one solution might be to awaken consumers to the very human cost of our purchasing choices. Most of us are woefully disconnected from our food sources, so we can’t even imagine how hard the paysans have to work to earn a living. Maybe if local stores and supermarkets “adopted” a small producer or two, it would benefit everyone by bringing in fresher meat and produce, giving consumers more choice, and supporting the smaller-scale producer who otherwise can’t compete with large-scale agribusiness. Anyway. Thank you for this superbly written, thought-provoking post.

    • MELewis · February 18, 2018

      Thanks for your comment, Heide! It’s funny, I had a similar thought myself the other day. What would really work, and maybe even make sense, would be if the supermarkets dedicated free space to farmers and local producers to sell direct to the public. That would certainly draw in plenty of buyers who want to get the best of both worlds. The traditional model of the way we shop, from distribution to retail, is in flux at the moment. We really need to rethink how we buy and sell and come up with a new way of doing things. For example, I buy online through the (oft-detested) Amazon. For me, it only makes sense. But so many boxes! So many deliveries! I’d be happy to group my deliveries once a week with others in my neighbourhood, and if they could then collect all those empty boxes, that would be wonderful. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  11. Alpenhorn · February 19, 2018

    I’m saddened to reflect on all the facets of your blog and the discussion about grocery store greed and the plight of French farmers. Cheap EU imports is a not only an economical challenge but, in my opinion, a health and environmental challenge, as well. Personally, I am very discriminatory with my food products. Living over the border in Switzerland, I am a Buy Swiss person (veggies, most fruit, sugar, oils, grains, oatmeal, meat, etc). It’s amazing what our two countries produce! Don’t the grocery stores in France label the origin of your foods?

    As much as I would love to make a bigger statement, for now I vote with my wallet and buy, to the best of my ability, the raw product. Of course I find it bizarre that I pay a premium for local produce but it’s important for me to not only support the local economy but reduce my footprint regarding transportation and the absurd plastic packaging and pre-determined quantities one finds in the grocery store.

    Food for thought tonight!

    • MELewis · February 21, 2018

      They do generally label the origins of fresh food at supermarkets here in France, but many people will simply buy the cheaper option (although they tend to be more discerning about meat). I admire your zeal for shopping local, and eschewing excess packaging, which seems to be quite a strong Swiss trait. I suppose it only makes sense that home-grown products are pricier, as the everything costs more in Switzerland!

    • Kiki · April 23, 2018

      BRAVO Alpenhorn; I was just going to congratulate you for your excellent English, but luckily I read your icon first…. or did I?
      You are in the lucky position to obviously earn a Swiss salary and being Swiss myself and ‘pendling’ quite regularly between France and CH, I’m always stunned at the difference of food costs – but then it IS quite clear that a Swiss salary is buying you at least twice or triple the buying power of a French employee.
      Having said that I can’t wait to go back to Switzerland, preferrably to VD, but this is totally unlikely to happen so I’m just harping a bit where I HOPE to get a pat on my shoulder and a word of compassion 😉 😉

  12. ProfTomBot · April 26, 2018

    I agree (albeit, hypocritically) that it’s garbage food. I’m fortunate to not get hyped by sales so cheap you can’t afford not to buy garbage, though. Very informative article; good work!

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