Under the scope of the National Nutrition and Health Programme (PNNS), almost 100 experts compiled the opinion using an "innovative" mathematical tool allowing them to consider several data simultaneously from the past 10 years.
A statement by ANSES said the opinion, published last week, has resulted in “major changes” compared to previous recommendations.
Processed meat products such as ham, salami, sausage and pâté should be “considerably reduced” so that daily intake does not exceed 25 g per day. Other red meat such as beef, pork or lamb (but not poultry) should be limited to 500 g per week.
This advice was slammed by FICT, the French industry association for processed and cured meat. “After stating it is not possible to accurately give a maximum amount of intake and that it is dangerous to extrapolate, ANSES recommends a consumption limit of 25 g, or 175 g per week. This threshold is twice as low as that mentioned by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the World Health organisation (WHO) in their recent work from October 2015. How can such a difference be justified?”
FICT also denounced the fact that many of the data used in the opinion were 10 years old, taken from studies that used non-French subjects, and did not take into account recent industry efforts to cut salt, fat and additives from processed meats.
French people are now urged to make pulses such as lentils, broad beans or chickpeas a regular part of their diet and to opt for less refined cereals by choosing wholemeal or semi-wholemeal bread and pasta and brown rice. They should eat around 400 g of fresh fruit and vegetables each day to boost fibre intake.
Vegetables oils that are rich in alpha-linolenic acid such as rapeseed and nut oils should also be favoured.
Unlike the UK’s recently overhauled Eatwell guide, which slashed the recommended dairy intake from 15% to 8%, the ANSES opinion makes no changes to dairy.
Sugar should not exceed 100 g per day, while sugar-sweetened beverages (including fruit juice) should be limited to less than one glass a day, said ANSES, although available data did not allow distinctions to be made between naturally-occurring and added sugars.
“Nevertheless, evidence is converging towards the harmful effects of high sugar intakes, above a maximum intake limit. In order to reduce total intakes for the most exposed populations, it seems vital to control the consumption of foods that are vectors of added sugars and, in particular, to take action on beverages.”
Last year, the US brought in changes to nutrition labelling requirements forcing food manufacturers to specify how much sugar was added during processing and how much is naturally present in ingredients such as fruit. However, this is not a requirement in the EU.
An ‘underwhelming’ sustainability score
Unlike the Netherlands’ dietary advice which slashed recommended meat intake by half – hailed as a “sustainable breakthrough” by campaigners - ANSES did not look at the environmental impact of food.
This prompted mixed reactions from groups, such as Climate Action Network and Future Generations. The French branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-France) said: “For the first time, ANSES highlights the need [for] a reduction in the consumption of non-poultry meat to 500 g per week, which we welcome. On the other hand, there is no explicit link between sustainable production (in particular organic farming) and health. An underwhelming assessment,” it said.
It urged the Ministry of Health to bring its dietary recommendations in line with environmental concerns and sustainable development – something Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, Brazil, the UK and most recently China have already done.
While the ANSES scientific committee has drawn up the guidelines, it will be up to public authorities to decide how to convey the information to the public, the agency said.
France is currently trialling several nutrition labels in a bid to determine which one is most effective to promote healthier food choices.
The ANSES opinion (in French) can be downloaded here.