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Quelle Horreur: The French May Be Told to Eat Less Chocolate

Quelle Horreur: The French May Be Told to Eat Less Chocolate

Photograph by Richard Gary/Gallery Stock

French health authorities, alarmed by rising obesity rates, are considering a nutrition-labeling plan that would classify chocolate as a food to be avoided. In a country where the day often starts with a pain au chocolat and ends with a mousse au chocolat, you can guess how that’s going down.

The national association of chocolatiers has condemned the proposal, saying it would undermine French traditions and values. “What’s next? A tax on people who love to eat?” the group says on its Facebook (FB) page, which has drawn a flood of comments from indignant chocolate lovers. More than 2,000 people have already signed a petition opposing the plan, even though the association didn’t start circulating it until late July, when most French were heading off for long summer vacations.

Social Affairs and Health Minister Marisol Touraine touched off the protest in June when she said the government might require color-coded labels on food packaging to encourage healthier eating. Consumers would be urged to eat more foods labeled “green,” such as fruits and vegetables, while avoiding those labeled “red,” including items high in fat, salt, sugar—and chocolate. A spokeswoman for Touraine tells Bloomberg Businessweek that the plan is still “under review” and that no date has been set for a decision.

France has experienced a sharp rise in obesity over the past two decades, with 14.5 percent of adults now classified as obese, up from about 7 percent in 1992. The chocolatiers’ association, though, contends that chocolate “doesn’t make people gain weight” and may even prevent weight gain because it contains polyphenols, metabolites that help suppress the formation of fat cells. “Obese people don’t eat more chocolate than people of normal weight,” the group says in a news release.

Indeed, it’s hard to see a statistical correlation between obesity and chocoholism. Switzerland has the world’s highest per-capita chocolate consumption, about 5.8 kilograms (13 pounds) per person per year, according to data collected by London’s International Cocoa Organization. Yet only 11 percent of Swiss adults are obese. Americans eat far less, about 5.4 pounds per person per year, but roughly one-third of U.S. adults are obese. And while obesity in France has been rising, the country’s per-capita chocolate consumption now is slightly lower than it was a decade ago.

Some in France contend the government should be encouraging people to eat more chocolate, not less. Comments on the chocolatiers’ Facebook page promote chocolate as a muscle relaxer, a facial mask, and an aphrodisiac. “The recipe for well-being is 20 grams of chocolate [about seven-tenths of an ounce] per day,” reads one such posting. Twenty grams daily would yield about twice the average consumption in France, now about 8 pounds a year.

France’s chocolatiers—makers of chocolate pastries and confectionery—contend that discouraging people from eating chocolate would have an economic impact, too, endangering the jobs of some 4,500 “artisan chocolatiers” who employ roughly 15,000 people in their bakeries and shops.

And that’s only part of France’s chocolate industry. Importers, wholesalers, manufacturers, and other industry players hold the world’s largest chocolate trade show, the Salon du Chocolat, in Paris each autumn, as well as smaller gatherings in Lyon and Cannes. More than 30 professional schools around the country offer degrees in chocolate confectionery-making.

Matlack is a Paris correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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