A series of questions on the overall context of the trial
The French EGAlim Act established a two-year trial to introduce a vegetarian menu at least once a week in school canteens, starting in November 2019. As an alternative to meat or fish dishes, the vegetarian menu may include other animal-based foods such as dairy products and eggs, and plant-based foods such as grains and pulses.
To make sure that the trial is conducted in the best manner possible, the Directorate General for Health and the Directorate General for Food asked the Agency for support on two occasions to determine:
- the impact of introducing meat- and fish-free menus on the nutritional intakes of primary-school children;
- the recommended weekly minimum or maximum frequency of vegetarian dishes.
Answers from available expert appraisal reports and studies
Given the time available for responding to the questions, ANSES used the results of previous work and studies as well as its databases, including:
- the ANSES 2021 opinion, “Dietary reference values for vitamins and minerals”;
- the ANSES 2017 study, “Third French individual and national study on food consumption (INCA 3)”;
- the CIQUAL database;
- the ANSES opinion on the updating of the French National Health and Nutrition Programme (PNNS) dietary guidelines (PDF) for children from four to 17 years of age.
In its first answer (PDF), the Agency indicated that a weekly vegetarian menu in school canteens could contribute to meeting all the nutritional needs of children, provided that it is balanced and that the vegetarian offer makes better use of the benefits of pulses and whole grains.
In its second answer, ANSES stressed that an increase in the number of meat- and fish-free menus would not alter nutritional balance in children, provided that the condition stated above is met. Therefore, there is no need to propose a maximum frequency for such menus. To reach this conclusion, the Agency compared the composition of vegetarian and non-vegetarian menus offered in school canteens and simulated changes in nutritional intake following the introduction of vegetarian menus.
This scientific expert appraisal provides insights for issuing recommendations for the vegetarian menu trial in school canteens. It does not, however, assess the health risks, as such an assessment would require additional data.
Future work on vegetarian diets in the general population
Because vegetarian consumption patterns are becoming more and more frequent, ANSES issued an internal request to establish dietary guidelines to cover the nutritional needs of people who exclude all or some animal-based foods from their diets. This work will be more comprehensive and scientifically robust than the current studies and will be published by the end of 2022.