Identification and characterisation of dietary patterns are needed to define public health policies to promote better food behaviours. The aim of this study was to identify the major dietary patterns in the French adult population and to determine their main demographic, socio-economic, nutritional and environmental characteristics. Dietary patterns were defined from food consumption data collected in the second French national cross-sectional dietary survey (2006–2007). Non-negative-matrix factorisation method, followed by a cluster analysis, was implemented to derive the dietary patterns. Logistic regressions were then used to determine their main demographic and socio-economic characteristics. Finally, nutritional profiles and contaminant exposure levels of dietary patterns were compared using ANOVA. Seven dietary patterns, with specific food consumption behaviours, were identified: ‘Small eater’, ‘Health conscious’, ‘Mediterranean’, ‘Sweet and processed’, ‘Traditional’, ‘Snacker’ and ‘Basic consumer’. For instance, the Health-conscious pattern was characterised by a high consumption of low-fat and light products. Individuals belonging to this pattern were likely to be older and to have a better nutritional profile than the overall population, but were more exposed to many contaminants. Conversely, individuals of Snacker pattern were likely to be younger, consumed more highly processed foods, had a nutrient-poor profile but were exposed to a limited number of food contaminants. The study identified main dietary patterns in the French adult population with distinct food behaviours and specific demographic, socio-economic, nutritional and environmental features. Paradoxically, for better dietary patterns, potential health risks cannot be ruled out. Therefore, this study demonstrated the need to conduct a risk–benefit analysis to define efficient public health policies regarding diet.