The Big Mac, epitome of American culture and the junk food revolution, receives an unexpected thumbs up from two leading French nutritionists in a "good food guide" to supermarkets and fast food restaurants published today.
The relative fat-to-protein contents of a Big Mac is considerably healthier than classic French snacks such as quiche lorraine and better than many other sandwiches or fast foods on the market, the authors say.
"Strangely enough, the products which are the most demonised are not necessarily the worst," say Jean-Michel Cohen and Patrick Sérog who analysed 5,000 forms of food readily available to consumers in French shops, supermarkets and restaurants.
In their book Savoir Manger (Flammarion, £13.30) published today, the two nutritionists brave the fury of the French cultural and culinary establishment by giving a coup de coeur - or seal of approval - to the Big Mac and the McDonald's cheeseburger.
However, other McDonald's offerings - notably chips and Filet-O-Fish - are given very poor marks for their relatively high levels of fat, compared to protein.
Even though it is hugely popular with ordinary French people, and responsible for many of the 90 million hamburgers sold in France every year, McDonald's has become the symbol of what the French call malbouffe (junk food).
M. Cohen and M. Sérog, two of the country's best-known nutritionists, say that McDonald's, and other sellers of fast foods, should not be held responsible for the growing levels of obesity in France.
After studying the branded products on offer in supermarkets, cafés and restaurants - including many self-proclaimed health foods - they say that hundreds of them have higher than desirable - or necessary - levels of fat and sugar.
France's girth problem - something new in a country which has usually prided itself on its nutritional health - is not caused by over-eating, they say. It is caused by the persistent consumption of branded products with a higher value in calories than necessary.
"There is no point in denouncing manufacturers who encourage us to eat ever more heavy, fat and sweet foods," M. Sérog said yesterday. "We have to teach the consumer how to choose what to put in their supermarket trolley ... Our ambition is to help the French eat with their heads and not just their bellies."
Their 597-page book analyses, supermarket chain by supermarket chain, 5,000 of the most commonly eaten foods in France and offers guidance on the relative fat-to-protein and sugar contents of the different named brands. Health-food brands are dismissed as a "great disappointment", which are often unneccessarily high in fat or sugar.
The simple way to judge the nutritional health of a food, they say, is to divide its protein content by its fat content. If the result comes out as one, or more than one, the food is relatively healthy. If it is less than one, it should be avoided.
Since the labels in foods are often misleading, and consumers cannot easily do the arithmetic for themselves while steering a cart down a supermarket aisle, the book does it for them. The same methods, when applied in the final chapter to restauration rapide or fast food, will startle the French food elite.
A Big Mac, for every 100 grams, (they usually weigh just over double that) has 239 calories, 12 grams of fat, 12 grams of protein and 2.8 grams of salt. By M. Cohen and M. Sérog's simple division test, a Big Mac works out at exactly "one" or healthy. "They also have a very filling effect on the stomach, which is good," M. Cohen said. By comparison, a "classic" quiche lorraine - a traditional French dish which is made from eggs, ham, milk and pastry - has in each 100 grams 359 calories, 11.6 grams of protein and 26.2 grams of fat. This works out as a protein-fat ratio of 0.44 - or very unhealthy indeed.
But the authors warn that fast-food restaurants can end up being bad for the health because of the quantities of chips, sugared drinks and desserts which consumers usually eat with their burgers.
Calories counted are per 100g of food. A protein-fat ratio of 1 or higher is good
Calories 239, protein 12g, fat 12g
Protein-fat ratio: 1
Calories 359, protein 11.6g, fat 26.2g
Protein-fat ratio: 0.44
Croissant with ham
Calories 287, protein 10.5g, fat 16.6g
Protein-fat ratio: 0.63.
Monoprix tomato mozzarella sandwich
Calories 202, protein 5.5g, fat 12.4g
Protein-fat ratio: 0.44
Calories 282, protein 3.6g, fat 13.8g
Protein-fat ratio: 0.26
McDonald's chef's salad
Calories 128, protein 12.2g, fat 8.6g
Protein-fat ratio: 1.67
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