Analysis of Chinese fod raises interest,ire

October 27, 1993|By Joan Cirillo | Joan Cirillo,Contributing Writer

Day after day, nutritionist and dietitian Jayne Hurley watched her health-conscious colleagues at the Center for Science in the Public Interest eat lunch. One day it occurred to her: Were the kung pao chicken and stir-fried vegetables good for them after all?

"People here probably wouldn't dream of going to McDonald's for lunch, but ordering-in Chinese food is an almost everyday occurrence," said Ms. Hurley from the Washington office of CSPI, a nonprofit consumer health advocacy organization. "Many people have turned to Chinese food as an alternative to burgers and fries, because they do think it's a lot more healthful."

Ms. Hurley dispelled that notion when she conducted what turned into a highly controversial $19,500 nutritional analysis, designed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for CSPI.

It stunned Chinese-food lovers with the news that an order of kung pao chicken had nearly as much fat as four McDonald's Quarter Pounders and that the country's dozen most popular Chinese-restaurant dishes were alarmingly high in fat and sodium.

Deep-fried dishes were bad. A single portion of sweet and sour pork had 1,613 calories, 39 percent of them from fat.

But so were stir-fried dishes. A portion of moo shu pork had 1,229 calories, 47 percent of them from fat.

Beef dishes were bad. A portion of orange beef had 1,776 calories, 33 percent of them from fat.

But so were chicken dishes. A portion of chicken chow mein had 1,005 calories, 28 percent of them from fat.

Add a 190-calorie egg roll and a 112-calorie bowl of hot and sour soup (with 150-calorie serving of fried noodles), add serious amounts of sodium in every dish, and a Chinese meal turned out to be far from the health boon Ms. Hurley expected.

"I was shocked," said Ms. Hurley, who is now analyzing Italian-restaurant food for CSPI. She wasn't alone. And her report, published in the CSPI's September Nutrition Action Healthletter, has started an uproar.

Outraged Chinese-Americans, who, Ms. Hurley said, have accused her of being a racist and of working for McDonald's, say the report is prejudicial and unfair.

Chinese restaurant business is said to have fallen off 20 percent to 35 percent across the country, according to reports from some of the 36 chapters of the Organization of Chinese Americans, according to the group's executive director, Daphne Kwok.

The organization successfully halted a Washington radio ad for the American Cafe that cited the report's findings to promote its own American cuisine. No other incidents have been reported. Michael Gura, president of the restaurant's ad agency, said he "had no idea the ad was offensive," and he has offered to work with Ms. Kwok to educate the public about Chinese-restaurant food.

Criticism and applause

Consumers are confused, although it's hard to tell if they've changed their eating habits. Some dietitians and nutritionists applaud CSPI's efforts while saying they're disappointed in the bad news. Others are skeptical, terming the report "unbalanced" and questioning its methodology.

Critics say CSPI sensationalized findings by comparing Chinese food to McDonald's and by burying the message that Chinese cuisine can be healthful if it's eaten as the Chinese do, with lots of rice, little sauce and a variety of dishes.

Some Chinese restaurateurs have responded by putting up signs offering lower-fat and lower-salt dishes. In a telephone interview from his office, CSPI's founder and executive director, Michael Jacobson, challenged them to continue and said he will meet this week with local restaurateurs to discuss menu cards showing more healthful food choices.

"We didn't want people not to go to Chinese restaurants -- rather, to go there and order more healthfully," he said.

World-wide news

As of 10 days ago, the study had generated 200 published news stories, including some in Europe and in Asia, and had inspired jokes by talk-show hosts David Letterman and Jay Leno. "This is one of those stories that hit a chord," said CSPI spokesman Art Silverman.

CSPI's scrutiny of restaurant fare, Ms. Hurley said, is a natural outgrowth of its recent campaigns to let consumers know what's in the food on their market shelves. With the new labeling laws taking effect in May, Ms. Hurley said, it's time to turn CSPI's efforts to restaurant food.

"What we're doing is paving new ground here," she added. "Why should restaurants get off the hook and supermarkets don't? We don't have any idea what we're eating in restaurants."

In its focus on food and nutrition, the 22-year-old organization reflects the zeal and style of its founder. Mr. Jacobson's response to recent criticism was typical. "We offend major industries. We call things as we see them. Unlike a lot of organizations, we don't take any money from industry, we don't take any money from government. We're not grinding anybody's axes but the public's.

All CSPI's operations are funded through subscriptions to their Nutrition Action Healthletter, which circulates 10 times a year to 700,000 readers.

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