Is Paula Deen’s Food Less Healthy? Intrepid NYTimes Journalist Finds Out!

Or not really, but publishes the article anyway!

Glenn Collins of the NYTimes asks:

After the hue and cry following Paula Deen’s announcement that she has Type 2 diabetes and would become a paid spokeswoman for a drug company, a question nags: Is the food that emerges from her kitchen really less healthy than the cuisine from other restaurants?

So he had a meal from Deen’s restaurant (fried chicken, collard greens, and macaroni and cheese, which he calls “reasonably sized”) and a dish from an Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village (sausage and peppers with polenta, which he calls “hardly cuisine minceur”) sent to Certified Laboratories in Plainview, NY for nutritional analysis.

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On the one hand, he seems to realize how pointless this is, admitting that the comparison was “unscientific and arbitrary.” Turns out the fried chicken meal has more than 2x as many calories and grams of fat, but less than a third as much “sugar” (unclear what that measures—sucrose? glucose? fructose? lactose? all of the above?) of the sausage and polenta. No word on total carbs. Is there a lesson to be drawn from this “subjective test,” he asks? (Which is also wrong: the problem is not that it’s “subjective”—the nutritional analysis is objective, all right. The problem is that it’s completely meaningless because he made no attempt to control any of the variables.)

Well, lovers of both Deen and Frankies are hereby advised to consider moderation and not look to Ms. Deen for enlightenment.

Many things about this article confuse me. Why not compare a meal from Lady & Sons to a comparable meal at another restaurant: i.e. find another fried chicken, mac & chs, and collard greens plate? Why not do an analysis of the nutritional breakdown of several of her recipes compared to other people’s versions? Or try to figure out the average nutritional content of a Lady & Sons meal and compare it to FDA recommendations? All of those methods would still have limitations, but at least you’d be comparing oranges and oranges.

I think the most head-scratching word in the entire article is the “hereby” in the above quote.

What information presented here makes the case for moderation—and moderation in what? The sausage and polenta dish has 347 calories and 15 grams of fat, which is probably less of both of those things than I eat for breakfast most days. And Deen’s fried chicken dinner comes in at only 830 calories, which is less than most of Subway’s $5 Footlongs (tuna salad on 9-grain wheat without cheese or extra sauce has a total of 930 calories; turkey breast on Italian with regular mayonnaise and no cheese has 860 calories; the meatball marinara on Italian Herbs & Cheese with no extra cheese or sauce has 1050). Neither of them seem particularly excessive to me; in fact, I’m pretty sure eating just the polenta dish for dinner would leave me feeling hungry. Perhaps Frankie’s is the kind of place where most people order multiple courses?

Has anyone has ever turned to Paula Deen for medical or nutritional advice? As even she noted when she made the announcement that she has Type 2 Diabetes on the Today Show, she’s a cook, not a doctor. I’m not impressed with her decision to use her diagnosis as an opportunity to profit by acting as a spokesperson for pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk, who make the diabetes drug Victoza she claims to be taking. Fortunately, based on some preliminary reactions, most ad executives and consumers aren’t loving it either. And I’m really not sure what information in this article is supposed to have any bearing on Deen as a source of “enlightenment.” Actually, she might actually be able to provide some great insight about building a food brand, being dissed by Anthony Bourdain, partnering with ethically suspect corporations, getting them to donate food to charity, and mugging terrifyingly for the camera.

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At least the article refrains from blaming Deen for her diabetes, the way so many others have in the wake of her announcement. As if anyone knows how she eats on a day to day basis anyhow or the relationship between diet, weight, and diabetes was simple and universally agreed-upon. But I understand the tendency to moralize about health. In some ways, this article is much more mysterious. If you’re going to go to the trouble and cost of having nutritional analysis done to try to figure out if Paula Deen’s food is really “worse” than anyone else’s, why not do it in a way that would actually enable you to reach something approximating a conclusion?