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Not so very long ago, going to a restaurant was considered an occasion, an exciting experience saved for celebrations. Maybe the family "gave" Mom the day off on Mother's Day, or everyone gathered together to dine out after a graduation. What went on behind the scenes in restaurant kitchens was invisible and kind of intriguing, and the whole experience came with a dash of glamour and anticipation.
For most people these days, eating out is neither exotic nor much of an event. In fact, eating out regularly seems to have become part of nearly everyone's daily routine. Overextended, time-crunched Americans increasingly rely on restaurants and take-out shops, and some kids practically grow up in fast-food outlets or on take-out food.
The proof is in the percentages: In 1955 Americans spent 19 percent of their food dollar on food that was prepared outside the home—today that figure has risen to about 41 percent, and it's still climbing. Hundreds of thousands of eateries dot the landscape, sprouting up everywhere from malls and airports to schools and gas stations. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that we're spending more than $222 billion annually at restaurants and cafeterias, including $118 billion at fast-food restaurants.
In many restaurants, food is no longer simple, straightforward fare. Menus are filled with dishes that are masterpieces of overwrought excess. Slick marketing campaigns encourage us to crave increasingly bigger and richer dishes. Portions of meat have gotten larger, layers of melted cheese have gotten fatter, salt and sugar are abundant, and even salads have been corrupted by silly additions like nuggets of fried chicken. We may count on health departments to ensure sanitation in restaurants, but who is looking after our interests when it comes to the nutritional consequences of what those restaurants serve? Neither health inspectors nor anyone else out there seeks to protect us from the growing extremes of calories, fat, and salt.
Good, reliable information about what we're being offered—and eating—in restaurants is virtually nonexistent. You'll rarely find nutrition information on menus, and restaurant critics don't address the health impact of the dishes they recommend. Even some popular books about restaurant nutrition are wildly inaccurate. But as we depend more and more upon restaurants for our meals, the nutritional quality of what we eat is increasingly important.
USDA surveys find that food eaten outside the home is nutritionally worse than home-cooked food in practically every way. For example, restaurant meals are, on average, 20 percent fattier than home cooking, and they're about 15 percent higher in saturated fat, which promotes heart disease. They're also higher in sodium and cholesterol and much lower in calcium, dietary fiber, and iron. In its understated way, the USDA notes, "Away-from-home foods generally contain more of the nutrients overconsumed and less of the nutrients underconsumed by Americans. As a result, the increased popularity of dining out may make it more difficult for Americans to improve the overall nutritional quality of their diets, particularly in terms of reducing intakes of fat and saturated fat." As we'll discuss in greater detail in the next chapter, eating out, if one is not careful, may increase the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and other health problems.
In 1993, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit, consumer-advocacy organization where the authors of this book work, launched an investigation into restaurant nutrition. We began with a study of Chinese-restaurant meals, having no idea what we'd find. We were shocked when the lab analysis revealed sky-high amounts of calories, fat, and sodium in many popular dishes. A single entrée, kung pao chicken with rice, contained 1,600 calories, 76 grams of fat, and 2,600 milligrams of sodium. That's more than enough fat and sodium for an entire day, and it doesn't take into account the usual accompaniments, such as soup, an egg roll, and extra soy sauce. We were also astounded to discover how large the portion sizes were, only to learn in subsequent studies that such huge servings are the norm—regardless of the type of cuisine—in the midpriced restaurants we visited.
The media found our results as hot as a wok during the evening rush. The Washington Post trumpeted "Moo Shu Madness." "Restaurateurs Sizzle over Kung Pao Study," reported the Los Angeles Times.
Media controversy flared after we announced the results of each new study of a restaurant cuisine—Italian, Mexican, seafood, and many others. Our news conferences became standing room-only events. Local TV newscasters staked out targeted restaurants to solicit patrons' reactions. The Oprah show, CBS's 48 Hours, Dateline NBC, ABC's s 20/20, and many other news and talk shows featured our studies. Headline writers had a field day. (Some of our favorites: "The Taco Belly!" in the New York Post after our Mexican study; "Avoiding the Fatter Breakfast Platter Is Sometimes a Matter of Batter" in the Washington Post about our breakfast investigation; "Study: The Buns Can Add Tons" in New York Newsday following our tests of sweets.) The studies also provided plenty of rich material for Jay Leno, David Letterman, and editorial cartoonists, all of whom helped spread the message.
Public-relations flacks for the restaurant industry swiftly mounted a counterattack, because the notion that restaurant dining could be unhealthful wasn't exactly the sort of publicity the industry liked. When sales at Chinese restaurants plummeted right after our report, restaurateurs blamed CSPI. The National Restaurant Association labeled us nutrition terrorists. Sometimes the media joined in, calling us the Food Police and peppering their stories with wisecracks and puns. But even some of the journalists who lampooned us eventually took our message to heart. Hefty Rush Limbaugh, for instance, began exercising and eating a lower-fat, no-sugar, and no-alcohol diet, and found that his weight dropped back down toward the healthy zone.
Despite what some critics charged, CSPI's mission was never to ban high-calorie restaurant meals or take the fun out of eating out. (Hey, we eat out, and fairly frequently, but we order judiciously!) And, no, it was not our intention to make everyone eat nothing but broccoli and bean sprouts. Our goal has always been to provide reliable information so that health-conscious consumers can make informed choices when they eat out and to encourage restaurants to provide more healthful options. And that's the intent of this book.
Of course, no matter how much information they've been given, some people will continue eating what we've dubbed a "coronary bypass special" (those double cheeseburgers at fast-food outlets) or the "heart attack on a plate" (fettuccine Alfredo). That's their right. In some cases it may not even be a problem—if such meals are rare events. Our arteries can, indeed, withstand an occasional indulgence.
CSPI's restaurant studies have proved vital for the many people who want the facts about restaurant nutrition. After all, neither the government nor the restaurant industry itself is providing the data. (The only exceptions are a few major restaurant chains, mostly fast-food ones, that voluntarily publish nutrition information. As we explain in the next chapter, restaurants are required to disclose nutrition information only when they make nutritional claims for a dish.)
As our studies continued to shock the public (and us) over the next few years, the National Restaurant Association kept pooh-poohing the findings. In 1996, Jeffrey Prince, then director of communications for the organization, urged a convention of public-relations executives to launch "a concerted effort to make the case against CSPI."
Such protests from the restaurant industry were all too familiar to us. A decade earlier, CSPI had fought a similar battle with the fast-food giants. McDonald's and the other major players boasted that their patrons didn't care about the nutritional quality of their meals or the ingredients from which they were made. After we began focusing the national spotlight on the abysmal dining options that McDonald's, Burger King, and others offered, several state attorneys general ordered McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King, and several other major companies to halt deceptive ads and to provide customers with ingredient and nutrition information.
Once the public began learning more about the foods those multibillion-dollar corporations were serving, the companies started making changes. McDonald's and most other major hamburger chains stopped cooking their french fries in beef tallow, a practice that put more beef fat in an order of fries than in a hamburger. (Ironically, instead of switching from beef tallow to vegetable oil, as we had urged, companies switched to hydrogenated vegetable shortening, which was soon discovered to be about as bad as beef fat. You'll find more on that shortening in the next chapter.) Grilled chicken sandwiches, salads, baked potatoes, fruit and yogurt parfaits, and a few other healthful alternatives to fried or grilled beef patties have since appeared at many chains. (See chapter 16, On the Run, for the latest on what chains are offering.)
Nutrition information on core menu items is now available from the largest chains—plastered on restaurant walls, printed in brochures, and posted on company Web sites. Unfortunately, the lion's share of the typical fast-food menu remains as harmful as it ever was, although at least consumers can find out what they're getting. That option is simply not available at most midpriced and upscale restaurants, where, shockingly, it turns out that many meals are far worse for your health than the fattiest fast foods.
The Often Surprising Results of Our Studies
Some restaurant-industry officials and journalists have derided CSPI's restaurant studies as merely stating the obvious. They said, of course people know that an Original Grand Slam breakfast at Denny's (two eggs, two hotcakes, two sausage links, and two strips of bacon) or a fried seafood platter is high in fat. And, they argued, no one eats sweets for nutrition, so what harm is one Cinnabon going to do? The answer, as we discovered, is plenty? Countless people, including journalists, were shocked to learn from our sweets study that what most people consider a snack to tide them over until mealtime—an Au Bon Pain Sweet Cheese Danish, for example—actually packs as many calories as a McDonald's Quarter Pounder with Cheese. And we're confident that few people suspected that some of the sweets, including Au Bon Pain's Pecan Roll and The Cheesecake Factory's Original Cheesecake, harbored at least an entire day's worth of saturated fat.
Indeed, our studies have provided one eye-popping surprise after another. Who would have guessed that spaghetti with meat sauce would be one of the better entrée options at an Italian restaurant? Who could imagine that we'd be giving the thumbs-up to a roast beef sandwich with mustard from a deli or that a typical sandwich-shop tuna salad sandwich with mayo on the bread has more fat and calories, and nearly as much saturated fat, as an overstuffed corned beef sandwich with mustard? And who wouldn't be taken aback by our discovery that some salad entrées, like a chef's salad, can deliver half a day's calories, largely because of the amazing amount of dressing restaurants add to them?
In fact, those facts aren't obvious, even to trained nutritionists. A survey conducted by New York University and CSPI nutritionists at the 1996 annual meeting of the American Dietetic Association found that dietitians greatly underestimated the calorie and fat content of restaurant meals. The researchers showed 203 dietitians five meals (lasagna, grilled chicken Caesar salad, a tuna salad sandwich, a hamburger with onion rings, and a porterhouse steak dinner) and asked them to estimate the calorie and fat content. The dietitians, who should be better able than anyone to accurately gauge the nutrient content of foods, underestimated the calorie contents by an average of 37 percent and the fat content by a whopping 49 percent. For example, they thought that the tuna salad sandwich provided 375 calories, but it actually provided 720 calories. They said it contained 18 grams of fat, whereas it actually contained 43 grams. They believed the hamburger and onion rings to contain 865 calories and 44 grams of fat; but they actually contained about twice those amounts. "The survey proves that even nutrition professionals can't estimate accurately the calorie and fat content of restaurant meals," said Marion Nestle, Ph.D., chair of New York University's Department of Nutrition and Food Studies. "If nutritionists can't tell what's in restaurant meals, consumers certainly can't."
One of the most shocking things we discovered about many restaurant meals is their gargantuan size. The entrées at places like The Cheesecake Factory, for example, are big enough to feed a family—a slice of carrot cake weighs almost a pound and has 1,560 calories. Adam Drewnowski, Ph.D., then director of the Human Nutrition Program at the University of Michigan, said, "People have a mental image of a 200-calorie muffin, but what they're in fact served is a huge 900-calorie muffin."
Even Jeffrey Prince, the former restaurant association official, has observed: "If any of you have been to Europe lately, and have come back to the U.S., you are absolutely flabbergasted at the discrepancy in the size of what we serve. Probably at home, but certainly in restaurants. And when you analyze these foods, 'Hey, there's a lot of calories in them!' because there's six times [or] three times as much food on the plate as there used to be. The biggest-selling item in the restaurant supply industry today is the 12-inch plate because the 10- or 11-inch plate won't hold the food anymore."
The American Dietetic Association may mean well when it states that "there are no good or bad foods" and that the "keys to a good diet are balance, variety, and moderation," but it misses an important point. If you're eating out 4.2 times a week—which the National Restaurant Association says is average—balance and moderation are pretty hard tricks to pull off in a land where 1,000-calorie meals are the norm. Let's be realistic. People who are downing fried seafood platters for dinner are not eating spinach salads at other meals. They're more likely to be eating cheeseburgers, "super-sized" orders of fries, pizza, kung pao chicken, or lasagna, and washing them down with quart-size sodas.
How We Conduct Our Studies
In almost every chapter we identify which restaurant chains were chosen for the analysis of a particular cuisine or category of food. The chapters on mall food and fast food don't list that information because most of the nutrition information presented is from the restaurants' own lab analyses. Here is a more detailed explanation of how we conducted our studies.
CSPI nutritionists designed its studies with advice from scientists at the USDA's Human Nutrition Information Service and USDA's Beltsville (Maryland) Human Nutrition Research Center. Those are the experts who supervise the collection and testing of thousands of food samples for the government's Nutrient Data Base. They helped us determine the number of cities and restaurants to visit, the number of food samples to collect, and the appropriate procedures for handling the samples and preparing the composites. Here's what we did.
Excerpted from RESTAURANT CONFIDENTIAL by Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D., Jayne G. Hurley, RD, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Copyright © 2002 by Center for Science in the Public Interest. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|1.||Introduction: Eating Out as a Way of Life||1|
|2.||Nutrition: Eating Out--Healthfully||15|
|3.||Rise and Dine: Breakfast||67|
|4.||Hold the Mayo: Sandwich Shops||85|
|5.||Wok This Way: Chinese Restaurants||103|
|6.||Use Your Noodle: Italian Restaurants||119|
|7.||Any Way You Slice It: Pizzerias||135|
|8.||Drop the Chalupa: Mexican Restaurants||161|
|9.||Acropolis Now: Greek Restaurants||179|
|10.||Catch of the Day: Seafood Restaurants||189|
|11.||Here's the Beef: Steak Houses||207|
|12.||Where Everybody Knows Your Name: Dinner Houses||223|
|13.||Home away from Home: Family-Style Restaurants||239|
|14.||In the Drink: Beverages||251|
|15.||Sweet Nothings: Pastry and Desserts||257|
|16.||On the Run: Fast-Food Restaurants||271|
|17.||Shop Till You Drop: Mall Food||303|
|18.||Horror Show: Movie Theater Snacks||355|
Posted January 8, 2003
Having seen the ill-effects of poor nutritional consumption first-hand I can say that anything which might help a reader to make a more educated choice about a dining decision should be encouraged. An example that caught a patient's eye recently was the nutritional content of her daily latte. She hadn't considered that drink to be such a major part of her caloric intake for the day. Additionally, in her case, her tuna-salad sandwich at lunch was another 'healthful' misconception on her part. With that in mind, I advise you peruse this book at your local bookhouse and compare it to others within the genre and make an educated decision for yourself. There are some eye-opening nuggets to be dicerned.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 22, 2002
I thought that this book would actually have some detailed information on restaurants other than fast food, but was sorely disappointed. All the listings you'll find in this book are on the web (for free) and the rest is complete common sense for anyone who knows the bare minimum about nutrition.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.