Restauration Collective
3 min

Facilitate access to mass catering and improve nutritional quality in fast-food restaurants

Every week in France, 83% of children and adolescents and nearly 80% of working adults and students take one or more meals outside their home. ANSES conducted a review of the foods consumed and the nutritional intakes of these meals taken away from home. Mass catering, i.e. school and company canteens, appears to be more in line with current dietary recommendations than other categories of out-of-home catering. The Agency therefore advocates providing easier access to it for as many people as possible. Conversely, ANSES warns of the poor nutritional quality of fast-food restaurants, which are increasingly popular with the French.

This review, based on data from the INCA3 study conducted in metropolitan France in 2014-2015, does not take account of the specific situation related to COVID-19. Indeed, the health measures taken in response to the pandemic have led to changes in the different catering options, as well as their frequency. However, this review can still serve as a reference "snapshot" to assess how the situation evolves over the medium or long term.

Factors determining the number of people using out-of-home catering

The number of people making use of out-of-home catering (OOHC) is correlated with age, socio-economic level and the size of the urban area where they live. Among working adults and students, the majority are between 18 and 44 years of age. Categories over-represented in OOHC include managerial staff and self-employed professionals, as well as people living in large conurbations, where plenty of options are available and commuting between home and work is less convenient. Men are also more likely than women to go to restaurants, whether traditional or fast food.

Mass catering: the most popular option for OOHC, and the one providing the best quality

Forty per cent of adults and 75% of children and adolescents eat at company or school canteens at least once a week. After meals taken at home, mass catering makes the greatest contribution on average to individuals' food consumption and nutritional intakes: around 10% for adults, between 15 and 20% for children and adolescents.

Because mass catering is regulated by guidelines laying down the composition of meals, consumption here is more in line with current dietary recommendations than other types of OOHC. For example, there are more fruit and vegetables, dairy products and fibre; fewer soft drinks, sandwiches, pizzas, pies, savoury pastries and biscuits, and less salt. As a result, ANSES recommends providing easier access to mass catering for as many people as possible. In particular, it should be more accessible to a larger proportion of students, non-managerial workers and children from the most underprivileged social backgrounds.

Fast food: risks of poorer nutritional intakes among high consumers

Fast food is in second place among teenagers, in terms of numbers using OOHC and contribution to intakes. For this population group, it seems to be a direct competitor to school canteens, despite the latter offering better nutritional quality.

Although its contribution to consumptions and intakes is still limited (5% or less), the number of people using fast-food restaurants at least once a week doubled between 2006 and 2014, among adults as well as children and adolescents, suggesting a greater contribution for the population as a whole in the future.

Among adults and adolescents who are heavy consumers of fast food, food groups such as sandwiches, pizzas, pies and soft drinks are eaten in large quantities and constitute the main contributors to total nutritional intakes for these groups. Improving the fast food offer is therefore a top priority, in order to enhance food quality for regular users of OOHC. 

Traditional restaurants: a limited tool

The contribution of traditional restaurants to foods consumed and nutritional intakes is moderate among adults (less than 10%) and very low among children and adolescents (1%), giving it limited scope to improve the out-of-home diet of the French. Nevertheless, strategies for improving the nutritional profile of the meals served there have been identified for certain nutrients (energy, fat, carbohydrates).

ANSES concludes by pointing out that 80% of people's nutritional intakes and consumption comes from meals taken at home. Improving the quality of people's diets should therefore be part of a comprehensive approach that improves the food available and includes complementary measures such as nutritional information and education for the public.