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.
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.
Staffed with 40 nutritionists, lawyers and environmentalists, CSPI has badgered the federal government and industry to secure bans on sulfites and hazardous food additives, to eliminate dishonest food labels and ads and to place warnings on alcoholic beverage containers.
Their efforts have led to caffeine-free soft drinks, low-sodium food products and low-fat fast-food choices such as grilled chicken and salads. Thanks largely to its efforts, fast-food chains no longer fry foods in beef fat, and major food manufacturers have stopped using coconut and palm oils, which are believed to contribute to heart disease.
Mr. Jacobson is known for his innovative and theatrical approach to what might otherwise be dry material. In 1977 he attached a bag of 170 extracted decaying teeth to his petition to the Federal Trade Commission to ban junk-food ads on kids' television shows. In the 1980s he posed for People magazine tossing burgers and fries into a garbage pail. He totes large tubes of fat with him when he goes on television, in order to show the fats in fast foods. "Sometimes I think we're much too wimpy, considering the magnitude of health problems related to the American diet," he said.
That helps to explain why CSPI placed the news about how to eat Chinese food healthfully on the last page of its two-page press release, devoting the headlines to comparisons with fast food. "When you can put things in terms that relate to people's everyday experience, like fast food, that helps galvanize audiences," said Mr. Silverman, who wrote the press release.
The duration of the interest has surprised Ms. Hurley, who said she walks into her office every day thinking the nearly 2-month-old story has run its course, only to get another interview request.
What started her thinking about it, she said, was a report by Prevention magazine and the Food Marketing Institute, the trade organization of the supermarket industry. It showed that 52 percent of supermarket shoppers thought that Chinese food was more healthful than their usual diet. That gave Ms. Hurley the idea of studying popular ethnic restaurant foods, starting with Chinese because it tops the popularity list if you eliminate pizza from Italian food.
Italian food too
Results of an Italian-food study using the same methodology are being compiled and will be published in the January newsletter. Since 40 to 50 percent of the food dollar is being spent on eating outside the home, said Mr. Jacobson, he would eventually like to look at other restaurant fare, such as food from pancake houses, seafood houses and delis. For the Chinese study, Ms. Hurley called restaurants across the country to learn their 12 most popular dishes. She added stir-fired vegetables, Hunan tofu, and chicken lo mein, not on that list, to offer examples of low-fat and vegetarian dishes.
An order of each dish was purchased at mid-priced restaurants in Washington, Chicago and San Francisco, cities picked to offer a geographic range.
CSPI staffers bought their food in Washington, and Superior Foods, a food company used by the USDA, bought and shipped food in the other cities to the USDA lab in Washington.
The way the dishes were prepared varied, said Ms. Hurley, as did the portion sizes. Szechuan shrimp came battered and fried in San Francisco but stir-fried in Washington. The amount of peanuts in orders of kung pao chicken ranged from a low of three ounces to a phenomenal nine ounces. Chicken chow mein on the East Coast came with fried noodles; on the West Coast it came with boiled noodles.
That's why we did all these dissections," explained Ms. Hurley, answering charges that variations in the dishes invalidated the study. Two CSPI interns picked apart and weighed the 135 samples to bringthem into line. They threw out the Szechuan shrimp in batter and ordered more that was stir-fried. They took out the noodles from the chicken chow mein and equalized the nuts in kung pao chicken.
The foods were then processed in a blender, frozen and shipped XTC to Lancaster Labs in Pennsylvania for an analysis of calories, percentages of calories from fat and saturated fat and of sodium content. CSPI estimated the amounts of cholesterol.
Some have criticized the way the study was done. Jacqueline M. Newman, a professor at Queens College whose research specialty is Chinese food and food habits, charged the report was "lacking in depth. It's not a study at all. It's background information for a feature article." She criticized the fact that samples were not randomly selected and findings were not repeated to confirm results.
"I don't understand why the study isn't good enough for them," said Ms. Hurley, referring to critics who, she added, use USDA figures every day to do their jobs.
To criticisms that portion sizes were unrealistically large, Ms. Hurley said, "We thought it was fair to put what we were served." In every case, the portion examined was sold as a single serving size; if two diners ordered dinner, said Ms. Hurley, they would order two dishes and share them, but the volume would be the same.
But she admitted that the chart detailing results caused confusion. Some of the dishes were given in 3- or 4-cup portions without making it clear the 3 or 4 cups included 1 1/2 cups of plain rice. What does it all mean?
'It's always good to know what's in the food you eat," said Wahida Karmally, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and director of nutrition at the Irving Center for Clinical Research at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York.
"Initially it has scared people," she said, adding that diners are often unaware of hidden fats, especially in sauces. But, as CSPI staffers and nutritionists agreed, Chinese food, unlike fast food, can be customized to reduce oil, and consumers can be educated to make better food choices.
Said another ADA spokeswoman, dietitian Mindy Hermann, "I don't think it's a reason to say no to Chinese food. It's a reason to learn a little bit more about what you're eating and how your favorite restaurant prepares the food. In the long run, people are going to go back to Chinese food, because they like Chinese food."