Is "Better" Junk Food Really Better?

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This week, Eating Liberally's Kat wants to know what I think about Oprah's free pass to KFC for adding grilled chicken to its fast food menu. The interview is below. The moral: watch out for health auras!

Kat: Oprah's getting grilled over her KFC coupon giveaway for a free meal featuring two pieces of KFC's new, healthier grilled chicken (along with two carb-heavy side dishes and a biscuit.) From a purely nutritional perspective, there's no denying grilled is better than fried. But it's a safe bet that the folks who redeem this coupon will be washing that chicken down with gallons of soda. And the meat still comes from factory farms, which Oprah very publicly deplored when she came out in support of Proposition 2.

You witnessed firsthand the appalling conditions to which factory farmed chickens are subjected when you served as a member of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. The environmental degradation that CAFOs cause is another significant problem, as are the lousy working conditions in the poultry processing plants.

Yet, as a nutritionist, you would presumably applaud any attempt by a high-profile figure such as Oprah to nudge folks in a healthier direction. How do you feel about the KFC/Oprah flap?

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Dr. Nestle: Your question raises an important philosophical issue hotly debated in the nutrition community today: Is a better junk food a good choice? Some would say that small nutritional improvements multiplied over an entire population will make an important difference to health. This is the philosophy behind shaving milligrams of sugar off of kids' breakfast cereals or adding a gram of fiber here and there.

But others, and I count myself among them, worry that such small changes merely create a "health aura"--the illusion that anything eaten in the vicinity of something healthful is automatically healthful too.

Researchers demonstrate the power of the health aura to give people license to make less nutritious choices. Brian Wansink and his colleagues at Cornell have shown that putting a low-fat label on a food product is all you have to do to get people to eat more calories from it than they would otherwise. And researchers have just shown that customers will order more French fries from a menu that lists a salad than they will from one that doesn't.

Those are examples of the health aura in action. If grilled chicken works for KFC as salads did for McDonald's, it will bring in new customers, at least temporarily. But health aura research predicts that having a healthier option at KFC will encourage most customers to order more of everything else.

My conclusion: the grilled chicken option is about marketing, not health. The proof? Oprah talked about it.

Where does that leave fast food restaurants? Isn't there anything they can do to promote the health of their customers? Indeed there is. Here are five simple suggestions: they could (1) make it easier and cheaper for customers to order smaller portions, (2) make healthy kids meals the default, (3) add vegetables (other than potatoes) to all of their meals, (4) provide fruit desserts, and (5) reduce the sugars and salt in everything they make.

What do you think the chances are that any fast food place will do these? Grilled chicken is easier and gets them off the hook, apparently.