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The Catch of the Day at This Seafood Chain Is Trans Fat

Public health advocates decry Joe's Crab Shack as a 'nutritional shipwreck.'
The Catch of the Day at This Seafood Chain Is Trans Fat

“Eat at Joe’s,” the saying goes—but eat at your own risk? The nonprofit public health watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest is taking aim at Joe’s Crab Shack, that 130-restaurant casual dining chain that always seems to be desperately trying to project an air of beachside conviviality even as it typically sits as an island unto itself surrounded by a sea of asphalt across from your local shopping mall.

Inside Joe’s, it’s always a vacation, which may explain why the chain has apparently been so lax about following through on its 2007 promise to eliminate trans fat from its menu, according to CSPI. “Joe’s Crab Shack is a nutritional shipwreck of a restaurant chain, ruining expensive seafood with cheap, industrially produced trans fat designed to simulate butter,” the organization’s executive director, Michael F. Jacobson, said in a statement. (You’ve got to hand it to CSPI: They don’t pull their punches in their press releases.)

Indeed, the organization found that several pricey Joe’s Crab Shack menu items contained whopping amounts of trans fat, which has proved so dangerous in study after study that the FDA has finally proposed dropping it from its list of foods that are “generally recognized as safe.” The entrées specifically cited by CSPI—Joe’s Pasta-laya, Crab Cake Dinner, and Redfish Pontchartrain, as well as Joe’s entire line of over-the-top Steampots—each contain as much trans fat as the American Heart Association recommends as the limit for an entire week. The KJ Steampot has a full 25 grams of trans fat.

True, all but the most naive restaurant goers probably suspect that, health benefits of seafood consumption aside, putting away an entire “Lobster Daddy Feast” is likely not all that good for you. Even on the menu the dish looks like more of a stomach-churning dare than it does a legitimate dinner option, like those outsize Texas steaks pictured at truck stops (“Eat it in less than an hour, and it’s free!”). But few might suspect that food that’s not been fried the bejeezus out of could contain such ridiculous levels of trans fat. As the CSPI press release points out, “With Steampots selling for between $21.49 and $41.99, consumers might expect they’re getting real butter" to dunk their crab legs in—but the seafood extravaganza is served with an unsaturated fat knockoff. 

Fast-food chains may garner much of the public ridicule for their contributions to America’s diet woes, which have led to elevated rates of heart disease and the current obesity epidemic. But it’s often casual dining restaurants like Joe’s Crab Shack that are serving up eyepopping amounts of calories, fat, and sodium. Last year, CSPI released its Xtreme Eating Awards, which generated widespread media coverage. It wasn’t McDonald’s and Taco Bell that were the most egregious offenders (though in a separate action, CSPI named Long John Silver’s Big Catch, with 33 grams of trans fat, as the “worst restaurant meal in America”; the chain has since eliminated trans fat from its menu). No, it was places such as Chili’s, Maggiano’s Little Italy, and the Cheesecake Factory that were tipping the scales with things like a 3,000-calorie shrimp pasta entrée and a single slice of chocolate cake that packed as much saturated fat as eating 15 Ho Hos.

Given the most recent CSPI allegations, Joe’s Crab Shack may want to rethink the little shark icon it uses on its menu to denote popular menu items—it calls them “Killer Choices.”

Domino's Turns Chicken Nuggets Into Pizza Crust

Not even the company seems to think this is the best idea.
Domino's Turns Chicken Nuggets Into Pizza Crust

Continuing fast food’s seemingly endless quest to satisfy a nation that it apparently thinks suffers from a perpetual case of the munchies, Domino’s has launched a new “it sounds so terrible you just gotta try it, right?” menu item: chicken nuggets as pizza crust.

That’s right—forget boring pizza dough. Instead, substitute 12 bite-size pieces of lightly breaded chicken breast slathered with traditional pizza toppings and sauce. You can take your pick from Crispy Bacon & Tomato, Spicy Jalapeno-Pineapple, Classic Hot Buffalo, and Sweet BBQ Bacon.

Even with the magic of professional food photography, these things look like a kitchen accident. Don't worry about the five-second rule here: No one’s ever going to know you dropped it on the floor.

Strangely, Domino’s seems to be admitting as much.

This is an era when fast-food menu items are launched with the kind of marketing hype and precision that used to be reserved for Hollywood blockbusters. So it seems to reveal something about the confidence Domino’s has in its newest offering that its ad campaign is based on the premise that the tricked-out chicken nuggets may be one big, cheesy, sauce-smeared mistake.

I mean, the debut TV spot opens with a banner proclaiming, “Failure is an option.”

The whole thing is supposed to be a play on the notion that genius inventions only come about after a lot of trial and error. As one geeky character actor in a Domino’s chef’s getup says, “If we gave up after every mistake, we wouldn’t come up with something new like our Specialty Chicken.” 

Never mind that “new” is just shy of “interesting” in the category of ambiguous adjectives—the kind of endorsement people give when they have to say something that at least sounds nice. What about “Specialty Chicken”? Seriously, no one in the entire marketing department could come up with a catchier name?

The chain tried “Pizza Chicken,” but “nobody knew what that was,” Domino’s CEO J. Patrick Doyle tells USA Today.

Well, “Specialty Chicken” solves that problem.

Behind the scenes, the “innovation” that went into this concoction that looks like something a tableful of nine-year-old boys might come up with if left to their own devices appears just as prosaic. According to USA Today, the chain was looking to add more chicken to its mix, along with the wings it already sells, and it decided to throw ingredients on top that its stores have on hand, kind of like McDonald’s did when it replaced its fancy Angus burgers with what are essentially souped-up Quarter Pounders.

Of course, every fast-food chain wants to come up with the next junk food hybrid that might rival Taco Bell’s now-legendary Doritos Locos Tacos. But the industry’s history is littered with more misses than hits. Remember when Wendy’s tried to take on Subway with its Frescata sandwiches in 2006? Or when Burger King tried its hand at tacos? Or when McDonald’s launched McPizza?

No? See, that’s what I’m talking about.

The 10 Best (and Worst) States to Eat Local

The third annual Locavore Index includes some surprises.
The 10 Best (and Worst) States to Eat Local

“Eat local,” they say—but where is local eating the easiest?

A Vermont-based group has released its annual ranking of states based on the availability of local food to the average citizen. It’s the third annual Locavore Index to be compiled by Strolling of the Heifers (here's a hint for the complete story on where that quirky name came from: It’s a play on Pamplona’s running of the bulls).

How does a relatively small nonprofit tally the availability of local food nationwide? It’s pretty clever, really. The index comprises four publicly available statistics per state:

• Number of farmers markets

• Number of CSAs

• Number of food hubs (i.e., “facilities that handle the aggregation, distribution and marketing of foods from a group of farms and food producers in a region”)

• Percentage of school districts with farm-to-school programs

The first three are divided per 100,000 residents. Farmers markets and CSAs are weighted at 30 percent each, while food hubs and farm-to-school programs are weighted at 20 percent.

That gives you a pretty decent idea of which states are most convenient when it comes to buying and eating locally grown and raised food, although it’s worth noting that the model doesn’t measure per capita consumption (that is, ranking access to local food doesn’t equate with ranking how much of it is being bought—a difficult thing to evaluate, to be sure).

So which states make it easiest to eat local? Here are the top 10:

1. Vermont
2. Maine
3. New Hampshire
4. Oregon
5. Hawaii
6. Rhode Island
7. North Dakota
8. Wisconsin
9. Montana
10. Iowa

That Strolling the Heifers’ home state of Vermont ranks No. 1 for the third year in a row might raise some eyebrows (though I guess the numbers don’t lie), but there are some other surprises here too. You go, Rhode Island and North Dakota! For all the lament that the nation’s farm belt has been given over to mega crops of transgenic corn and soybeans, it’s also heartening to see Iowa make an impressive showing.

As for two big, generally progressive states where enthusiasm for local food would appear to be strong, New York (home to all those quaint Hudson Valley farms) ranks a decidedly middling 23, while California (hello, Alice Waters) comes in at a fairly shocking 38. [still doesn't answer why CA was so low, just that it was...]

That doesn’t quite land the Golden State in the list of the 10 worst states for access to locally grown food. Those are

1. Texas
2. Nevada
3. Arizona
4. Louisiana
5. Arkansas
6. Oklahoma
7. Mississippi
8. Illinois
9. Utah
10. Alabama

This just adds to the list of embarrassing No. 1 rankings for Texas, alongside things like being the execution capital of the country and providing the worst health care.

The premise behind Strolling the Heifers’ Locavore Index is even more interesting to consider in light of Walmart’s surprise announcement that it’s “rolling back” the price of a hundred or more organic items big-time. As Forbes reports: “Walmart’s new Wild Oats organic products—including kitchen cupboard staples like olive oil and black beans—will cost about 25 percent less than those sold by competitors, based on price comparisons of 26 national brands.”

The move is being hailed as another boon for the already burgeoning organic food industry—but therein lies the rub. Since the USDA came up with a legal standard for just what the “organic” label means more than a decade ago, consumer interest in organic food has soared (sales growth of organic products has routinely outpaced conventional groceries in recent years, often by double digits).

Yet that’s transformed organics into an industry, which critics say more or less misses the point: Food produced on an industrial scale doesn’t necessarily (or even likely) support local farms, nor does it address environmental concerns such as carbon pollution. Those organic bananas still have to be shipped all the way from Central America.

So as Walmart seeks to go head-to-head with Whole Foods, it seems “local” today may very well be what “organic” was a decade ago.

Jeffrey Dahmer's Childhood Home as Vegan Restaurant? Guess Who's Behind This One...

PETA returns to its publicity-mongering fascination with America's most infamous cannibal.
Jeffrey Dahmer's Childhood Home as Vegan Restaurant? Guess Who's Behind This One...

A pleasant vegan dinner, a lovely view of the woods—just try to forget you’re dining in the house where one of America's most notorious serial killers dismembered his first victim.

In its latest crazy bid to keep the issue of animal cruelty in the public eye, PETA has declared it wants to buy the 1950s mid-century modern ranch-style house in suburban Akron, Ohio—where Jeffrey Dahmer lived from ages eight to 18—and turn it into a vegan-only restaurant.

“Now that serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s childhood home in Akron is up for sale, PETA has sent a letter of enquiry to the real-estate agent handling the property, Richard Lubinski, expressing the group’s interest in opening a vegan restaurant on the site,” the group said in a press release. “PETA points out that murderous actions such as Dahmer’s—from binding victims’ limbs, drugging and dismembering them, refrigerating parts of their bodies, and eating them—are still carried out on other living beings who happen not to be human and that one way to turn evil into good would be to convert the home into a vegan restaurant if a zoning variance can be had.”

PETA would call the restaurant Eat for Life: Home Cooking. Although the group links from its website to a new logo for the restaurant, it’s clearly a cheap ploy for some kind of illusion of legitimacy: Copyright credits show the image has been lifted from iStock, and it looks like the whole thing was probably whipped up in about 15 minutes by an otherwise bored graphic designer.

That’s not all to suggest PETA’s move is more stunt than serious (well, duh). Dahmer’s old home, which is on the market for $295,000 and has been bought and sold at least three times since his arrest and subsequent murder in prison in the 1990s, sits on a wooded lot surrounded by...other homes on wooded lots—not exactly the prime location for a restaurant.

And at just over 2,100 square feet, the three-bedroom, three-bath with “a pond and lovely flower garden,” according to one listing, is pretty small digs for a commercial eatery. Using an industry rule of thumb, allocating about 60 percent for dining space and 15 square feet per customer for a sit-down restaurant leaves a measly 20 tables or so. Never mind that zoning variance.

This isn’t the first time PETA has sought to link Dahmer’s heinous and demented crimes to “the violence inherent in the production of meat, eggs, and milk,” to quote the group's letter to Lubinski, the real estate agent. In 1991, less than a month after Dahmer’s arrest, PETA tried to run an ad in The Des Moines Register comparing his killing spree to what goes on at your average slaughterhouse. The newspaper refused to publish it.

Of course, this is the same group that has likened the American Kennel Club to the KKK (for its insistence on pure bloodlines), launched a semi-pornographic (some say sexist) campaign to encourage vegetarianism, and tried to convince the public to associate factory farms with Nazi death camps. Pitching a vegan restaurant in the boyhood home of a serial killer almost seems tame by comparison.

For its part, PETA has always defended its beyond-the-pale publicity stunts. “The fact is that in this tabloid era, the media usually do not consider the facts alone interesting enough to cover,” the group says on its website. “Colorful and controversial gimmicks, however—such as jumping on stage at a fashion show to protest a designer’s promotion of fur—consistently grab headlines, bringing the animal rights message to audiences around the world. Experience has taught us that provocation and controversial campaigns make the difference between allowing important yet depressing subjects to remain invisible and exposing them to the public.”

But do those tactics change public opinion? According to Gallup, while fewer Americans today consider medical testing on animals morally acceptable (56 percent in 2013 versus 65 percent in 2001), 59 percent have no objection to buying and wearing clothes made from animal fur and just 5 percent say they’re vegetarians—numbers that haven’t really budged in more than a decade.

Are Kids on Juice Cleanses a Full-Blown Crisis? Or Just Media Hype?

Either way, parents of picky eaters ask, 'How the heck did you get your kid to drink kale juice?'
Are Kids on Juice Cleanses a Full-Blown Crisis? Or Just Media Hype?

A six-year-old on a juice cleanse! Now that’s news—or at least the pitch for a Toddlers & Tiaras knockoff.

Except maybe it’s not all that newsworthy.

A headline this week in the New York Post, that paragon of journalistic virtue, posed the ominous question: “Should Kids Do Juice Cleanses?” The accompanying story purports to investigate what the tabloid is trying to hype as a growing problem, though the whole thing feels a bit threadbare.

By my count, just four “kids” are featured in the story (not one of which, it's worth noting, is the child of a Hollywood celebrity): 18-year-old Victoria Rodriguez, 17-year-old Emmy Heyman, 13-year-old Kendall Graboff, and yes, “cherub-cheeked” 6-year-old Sofia Davella.

ABC’s Good Morning America swiftly pounced on the story, hosting Heyman and her mom, Joanne, on the nation’s No. 1 morning show. And the “alarming” trend has already leaped across the pond, with the U.K.’s Daily Mail blaring, “How Teenagers as Young as 13 Are Getting Hooked on Their Mothers’ Punishing Juice Cleanse Diets”! That exclamation point may be mine, but still—“hooked”?

The Post story is a prime example of that dubious media tactic of cloaking what amounts to a shameless bid for readers in “concern” for a supposed pressing public health issue. If three makes a trend, then four is an epidemic.

The six-year-old in question? Almost from the get-go we learn that she’s not really, technically, on a juice cleanse. She just likes to cadge her mom’s expensive juices from the fridge instead of reaching for a snack-time Go-Gurt. She apparently still eats regular meals.

In fact, rather than be horrified, parents of picky eaters will no doubt marvel at little Sofia’s culinary repertoire: Her favorite foods include shumai and sautéed kale with edamame. Meanwhile, I have a nephew who refuses to eat chicken noodle soup.

True, the three teenagers featured in the story are a bit more troubling, particularly when they start talking about losing weight. As one M.D., a specialist in adolescent medicine, put it in the Post story, “awareness of cleanses at a very young age could lead to eating disorder behaviors.”

The docs quoted by Good Morning America are more harsh. “Kids don’t need a cleanse; they need good food,” Dr. Keith Ayoob, associate clinical professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, tells Good Morning America. “A cleanse usually means they’re also excluding necessary food groups and nutrients.”

Dr. David Katz, founder of the Childhood Obesity Journal, can barely seem to dignify the whole thing with a response. “Come on, seriously? A combination of pecuniary exploitation and stupidity—I think that’s all there is to say on the matter.” It’s not clear whether he’s talking about kids on cleanses or about Good Morning America trying to spin this as a bona fide story.

You could chalk it all up to another eye-rolling attempt by the Post et al., to goose up their page views were it not for the disturbing implications of this fledging media-driven “crisis.”

Even as these outlets dutifully trot out doctors and nutritionists to criticize parents who would allow their kids to go on a juice cleanse, this medical tsk-tsking all serves as kind of a monotonous backdrop, like those drug commercials that intone the risks of death while showing happy, healthy couples frolicking on a beach.

The real focus of these stories still seems to be the precocious children and teenagers who beam for the camera, extol the benefits of cleansing, and bond with their moms over a love of what amounts to high-priced snake oil. It’s a recipe for copycats. If we don’t have a real “kids on cleanses” crisis now, we could if it becomes a full-blown media sensation. 

When Ayoob says, “Kids don’t need a cleanse, they need good food,” most medical experts would take it a step further: People don’t need a cleanse. Period.

To sum up a wealth of cleanse myth debunking out there, cleanses are stupid. Your body doesn’t need any help “detoxifying”—it takes care of that on its own. Like any crash diet, you’ll lose weight, of course—but you’ll gain it back when you return to eating like you did before. And cleanses can be dangerous, say, for people with undiagnosed kidney disease or diabetes (all that juice throws your blood-sugar levels seriously out of whack).

Your best bet for good health? Steer clear of the processed stuff, and stick to a diet of whole foods that’s rich in fruits and vegetables.

Boring but true—even if it’s not likely to land you a spot on Good Morning America any time soon.

Soda Industry Campaigns Early—and Hard—Against Soda Taxes

Predictably, it's fudging the facts.
Soda Industry Campaigns Early—and Hard—Against Soda Taxes

San Francisco residents aren’t scheduled to vote on a proposed soda tax until November, but the soda industry has already gone on the attack. Earlier this month—a full eight months before polls open—S.F. voters began receiving glossy mailers decrying city hall’s efforts to impose a 2-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages, somehow tying the issue to San Francisco’s shortage of affordable housing.

“Rising cost of living. Escalating Rents. Impending Evictions. What is city hall’s plan?” reads the outside of the flier, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Open it up to find the purported answer: “A big new tax on beverages that will raise our grocery bills? Seriously?”

The flier was technically paid for by Stop Unfair Beverage Taxes—Coalition for an Affordable City, but go to the group’s website, and you see it’s underwritten by the American Beverage Association, the soda industry’s big lobbying organization.

Soda taxes are to the ABA what assault rifle bans are to the NRA, so it’s no surprise that the group has launched a super-aggressive, early-bird campaign in San Francisco, nor is it surprising that it would glom on to the economic insecurities of the rapidly gentrifying city as a reason to vote against the tax. Never mind that most sane people would readily admit that sustaining your soda habit is hardly the same as being able to pay your rent.

If that logic is shaky at best, the ABA is also taking the issues of health and junk food taxes head on. What's similar here, however, is the way the association twists the results of a recent University of Wisconsin–Madison study on its blog, which crows, “We Can’t Tax Our Way to Better Health.”

“It’s nonsense to think that government can legislate healthy lifestyles,” the post reads. “We’ve seen more evidence to support this fact recently with a new study…[that] found there is no support for the claim that a soda tax will improve health….”

Is that what the study, which was published last week, actually says? The headline on the UW–Madison press release sums it up differently: “Soda Tax Does Little to Decrease Obesity, Study Shows.”

True, that's not exactly shout-it-from-the-rooftops news for soda tax proponents, but it’s worth pointing out that “does little” isn’t the same as “doesn’t.”

Over at The Huffington Post, Jeff Ritterman more or less makes the same point: “Actually, despite using data that is eight years old and evaluating extremely weak soda taxes of a mere 3 percent, the researchers found that soda taxes ‘have a statistically significant impact on behavior and weight,’ meaning people consumed less soda and lost weight. It's just that the impact was small.” Hence, "little."

And this was just one study.

Here’s what the ABA wasn’t talking about on its “Sip & Savor” blog: The results of another, potentially more damning soda tax study released last week. As Pacific Standard reports, researchers in the Netherlands found that a 12 percent increase in the price of sugar-sweetened drinks “significantly” decreased the purchase of those beverages—by an average of 30 ounces per household per week. Even more important, consumers didn’t appear to substitute other sugary treats for the missing soda calories. The study may be small—it included 91 participants—but the results are in line with a 2010 study from Harvard that measured a 26 percent decline in sugary soft drink consumption after the price was hiked 35 percent in one hospital cafeteria, compared with another cafeteria where the price remained unchanged.

But we may not even have to rely on academic studies to tell us whether soda taxes have the power to curb the public’s appetite for beverages that, time and again, have been linked to obesity and other public health ills. Last week also brought news from soft drink makers in Mexico that, thanks to the one-peso-per-liter tax on sugary drinks the government began collecting this year, production is expected to fall by as much as 7 percent.

Lovin' It Forever: 18-Year-Old Gets a Tattoo of a McDonald's Receipt

Fast-food nation, indeed. This Norwegian teenager has made his love of Big Macs permanent.
Lovin' It Forever: 18-Year-Old Gets a Tattoo of a McDonald's Receipt

Why did an 18-year-old Norwegian kid get a tattoo of a McDonald’s receipt on his forearm?

Seriously. There’s no punch line here. It’s a bona fide question. And one that Stian Ytterdahl, the young man in question, can’t seem to answer (at least to the satisfaction of anyone whose brain isn’t muddled by whatever the hell is muddling Ytterdahl’s brain).

“A couple of my friends thought I had been a little too active on [the] women’s front in the past and would punish me,” he is reported as saying.


Even accounting for whatever might be lost in translation, there still doesn’t seem to be a way to salvage that answer for comprehension. Apparently Ytterdahl was given an alternative by his boneheaded friends: He could have opted for a Barbie tattoo on his butt.

“Now I’m a living billboard, but I think all this is just fun,” he says. “Maybe it’s not as fun when I’m 50 or 60 years old, but it’s my choice.”

Forget 50 or 60—try 15 minutes from now, when Ytterdahl’s fame will no doubt have expired.

For its part, McDonald’s Norway adamantly denies this is any sort of corporate-sanctioned publicity stunt, per communications director Margaret Brusletto. “We’re obviously talking about a very loyal customer,” she told the Irish Mirror.

There are several other choice words you could substitute for “loyal” there that would probably be more apt.

Eagle-eyed folks will at least glean a bit of cross-cultural economic comparison from this made-to-go-viral Internet moment. Look closely at Ytterdahl’s new tattoo, and to Americans at least, the tally is almost as shocking as the fact that anyone, anywhere, would ink a McDonald’s receipt on his arm.

A handy currency converter finds that a Mickey D’s soda in Norway will set you back (wait for it)…$4. What appears to be a simple cheeseburger: $6.

All in all, Ytterdahl appears to have dropped more than $20 at McDonald’s for little more than a couple cheeseburgers with extra toppings, a soda, and a McFlurry. And we’re not talking about the overpriced fare of tourist hangs like Times Square. This is in Solheimveien, which doesn't even rate in the top 100 cities of thinly populated Norway.

That’s in keeping with findings from The Economist’s long-running Big Mac Index, “a lighthearted guide to whether currencies are at their ‘correct’ level,” according to the magazine’s website. “It is based on the theory of purchasing-power parity, the notion that in the long run exchange rates should move towards the rate that would equalise the prices of an identical basket of goods and services (in this case, a burger) in two countries.”

Relative to the U.S., Norway has the most expensive Big Macs, an average of $7.51 versus $4.62 in the States.

So maybe this is a case of cultural misunderstanding, that what seems ubiquitous to us Americans, with our 15,000 or so McDonald’s restaurants, is somehow special to Norwegian kids, who have to make do with a paltry 80 red-and-gold eateries, give or take.

Maybe there’s what might be called naive conceptual art genius at work: In making indelible what otherwise might be thoughtlessly crumpled and pitched in the trash, Ytterdahl is unwittingly forcing us to question our own derisive reaction to his stunt and in the process challenging the validity of a fast-food culture in which we consume mindlessly and that has systematically debased our connection to what we eat.

Or maybe he’s just an idiot.

Burger Chain Debuts 'Wine Milk Shakes'

Red Robin: Making it safe for moms to drink hard liquor in front of the kids.
Burger Chain Debuts 'Wine Milk Shakes'

With the rollout of its new wine milk shakes, family fun night at Red Robin just got a lot more enjoyable for parents.

Although nothing would seem to signal middle-aged despair quite like Mom in the corner booth sucking down a Mango Moscato Wine Shake (to be followed, no doubt, by somebody crying on the ride home), Red Robin’s chief marketing officer, Denny Marie Post, bills it as the chain “continuing to stay on the leading edge of fun trends,” reports USA Today.

Of the unholy concoction, a combination of vanilla soft serve, Moscato-flavored vodka, and Moscato wine, even Red Robin “master mixologist” Donna Ruch can’t seem to muster much good to say about it, describing the adults-only treat to CNN as “definitely sweet.”

And pricey. The wine shake will set you back $7.49. (Eh, forget about tickets to the seven o’clock movie; we’ll just swing by Redbox instead. “Waiter, I’ll have another!”)

Red Robin may be all smiles debuting its treacly, sneaky way for parents to drink hard liquor in front of the kids guilt-free—note that though it's being billed as a "wine" milk shake, it's got vodka in it—but it’s a gimmick that betrays a whiff of desperation.

True, the burger chain is faring better than many of its competitors in the “casual dining” sector—in industry parlance, that means a restaurant chain where someone actually waits on you, but you can still show up looking like a schlub. Red Robin posted a relatively respectable 3.7 percent gain in same-store sales for the fourth quarter, thanks in part to an overhaul of its appetizer and dessert menus and remodeling of its stores.

But casual dining as a whole is in trouble, with now ubiquitous, once seemingly unassailable chains like Olive Garden and Red Lobster struggling to remain relevant. Yep, it turns out folks won’t show up for unlimited salad and bread sticks forever.

Even as America creeps back from the Great Recession, casual dining chains continue to suffer lackluster sales, with a 2 percent slide reported overall in 2013 for outposts open at least a year, according to Yahoo! Finance. Customer traffic has declined for nine of the last 13 years.

Blame it on the surging popularity of “fast-casual” restaurants like Chipotle and Panera, some experts say. Or blame it on the fact that a country that spends its nights on the couch voyeur-eating the creations of chefs on the Food Network or on any of about a gazillion cooking competition shows just doesn’t find “Lobsterfest” as thrilling as it once did.

Then there’s the possibility that, for Gen Xers and Millennials, what signaled a sorta-special dinner out growing up may now only recall the tedium of returning to the burbs to visit the folks and sitting through yet another discussion about why the bread sticks “just don’t taste the way they used to.” Which will inevitably be followed by “A 10 percent tip is more than fair—he only came to refill our drinks once.” 

Should We Really Be Worried About 'Food Gentrification'?

America's relationship with its greens continues to be a lightning rod.
Should We Really Be Worried About 'Food Gentrification'?

Have you recently discovered a taste for collard greens? Well, unless you’re poor and black, some critics are suggesting you should feel guilty about it.

That, in short, seems to be the underlying message from chef and commentator Soleil Ho over at Bitch, who’s been railing for a while now on the issue of “food gentrification.” Her beef? Collard greens, once a hallmark of traditional African American cooking, are being hailed by the likes of Whole Foods as “the new kale.” 

“What all of this adds up to is a massive PR campaign aimed at rebranding collard greens, divorcing the vegetable from its working class and indigenous affiliations to place it squarely within the culinary crosshairs of the same massive gourmet health food apparatus that turned acai berries, quinoa, tofu, and chia seeds into ‘superfoods,’ ” Ho complained in January, just as Whole Foods was launching its push for collards. “Though the health benefits of such foods are well-documented, their trendiness within majority populations tends to result in a generally unhealthy outcome for their cultures of origin.”

Ho isn’t alone. Black feminist Mikki Kendall was among the first critics to take Whole Foods’ rebranding of collards to task, launching the hashtag #foodgentrification and writing, “The ability to afford food is being hindered by inflation in basic food costs and the economic impact of a food becoming ‘cool.’ ”

No doubt the cost of food is rising, and that’s particularly troubling when considered alongside issues such as wage stagnation and America’s increasing income inequality, concerns that both Kendall and Ho spotlight. In a follow-up article titled “The Cost of Kale: How Foodie Trends Can Hurt Low-Income Families,” Ho cites USDA figures that show the average weekly cost of feeding a family of four has increased almost 18 percent in five years, during a time median income in the U.S. has remained flat.

But how much of the rise in the cost of food can we attribute to “food gentrification”? That's where the case gets decidedly murky, even as Ho continues:

“The phrase ‘food gentrification’ is a lightning-quick synthesis of complex values and ideas into a compact form. Though it may seem unduly weighed down by its provocative nomenclature and its association with the plagues of coffee shop Columbuses that have descended on places like Brooklyn, Oakland, and New Orleans, gentrification’s original meaning holds true: it represents renovation, refurbishing, rebranding—and, some would add, rebirth—seemingly for the purpose of accommodating WASP tastes.”

It sounds logical, until you look at the numbers. As the title of Ho’s article suggests, she points to kale as prime evidence of the power of marketing to transform a once humble green into a high-profit-margin superfood destined primarily for the plates of upper-middle-class trend chasers. Yet the only figures that appear to support this assertion come in the form of a graphic accompanying Ho’s piece that cites USDA stats: “In 2011, kale was sold in 4,700 stores. Now it’s sold in 50,700. Over that time, the cost of kale increased 25 percent, from 88¢ a bunch to $1.10.”

While a tenfold increase in the number of stores selling kale may well indeed prove that kale has become a super-trendy superfood, the rise in its average price does not indicate it’s being put out of reach for low-income families.

Say stores A, B, and C each sell kale at $1/lb., and then fancy store D decides to jump on the kale bandwagon. Because it caters to wealthier customers, it prices its kale at a whopping $2.50/lb. The average price of kale jumps from $1/lb. to $1.37/lb., a 37 percent rise. But it doesn’t follow that stores A, B, and C all raise their prices as well. They may very well not, particularly if they consider one another their primary competition, rather than upscale store D.

If you’ve ever shopped in Chinatown for, say, ginger or bok choy or tofu, then priced the same ingredients at a place like Whole Foods, you can see this carries over to shopping in the real world.

Without this crucial piece of their argument—that the trendy popularization of certain ethnic foods leads to an overall rise in price—the case made by foes of so-called food gentrification seems to center less on economics and more on a kind of socially conscious outrage over cultural appropriation. But that essentially ignores that you cannot write the history of food and civilization without encountering one culinary appropriation after another (just think: Italy didn’t even have tomatoes until they were imported from the Americas).  

It’s hard to imagine how we might keep any one food (such as collard greens) from being “discovered” by other groups. Instead, better to focus our efforts on those issues raised by writers like Kendall and Ho that are demonstrably having a detrimental impact on our society as a whole and that we can do something about—like supporting an increase in the minimum wage or reversing the devastating cuts to the food stamps program.

We should also continue to champion and highlight the good work that’s being done to address the very disparities Kendall and Ho cite—not by keeping collard greens out of the clutches of Whole Foods but by working to make healthier foods more available to all low-income families. A new $100 million USDA program, for example, builds on the success of state-level NGO programs to double SNAP benefits for things like locally grown produce at farmers markets—collards and kale alike. The Fair Food Network, a Michigan-based nonprofit, found that such incentives led to 95 percent of SNAP beneficiaries saying they had increased the amount of fruits and vegetables in their diets, and 90 percent reporting that they were spending less of their benefits on junk food. To me, those are results worth fighting for.

Could It Be That Saturated Fat Is Not So Bad After All?

Critics were quick to jump on a major new study—and no one's saying the Meat Lover's Supreme with extra cheese is good for you.
Could It Be That Saturated Fat Is Not So Bad After All?

For more than a generation now, saturated fat has been high on what might be called the nutritionist’s most wanted list: an artery-clogging villain whose appearance in the form of, say, a cheeseburger oozing grease has practically screamed, “Heart attack!”

But this week, in the equivalent of a not-guilty verdict for a suspect everyone thought had wielded the gun, came shocking news from scientists: “Eh, saturated fats aren’t so bad after all.”

Say what!?

In a massive new study published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine and led by docs from Cambridge University and the Harvard School of Public Health, researchers reported they found no link—repeat, no link—between consumption of saturated fats and heart attacks or other cardiovascular problems. Saturated fats are found mostly in meat and dairy products.

“My take on this would be that it’s not saturated fat that we should worry about,” lead author Dr. Rajiv Chowdhury of Cambridge told The New York Times.

It’s baffling news (especially for anyone who took the time to try to understand what the hell was the difference between HDL and LDL cholesterol), but it’s not completely surprising. Earlier studies, such as one published in 2010, came to similar conclusions.

But the current study is undoubtedly one of the largest to try and rid saturated fats of their almost murderous reputation. Chowdhury and his colleagues pored over almost 80 studies involving more than half a million people looking for evidence that saturated fat consumption correlated with higher rates of heart disease, and they found none. The study did, however, confirm the long-standing link between trans fat and heart problems.

Critics, such as Harvard nutrition professor Frank Hu, said that one reason Chowdhury's analysis came to the conclusion that it did is that people who cut back on saturated fats replaced the calories with other unhealthy foods. That wouldn't show saturated fats aren't bad for you, just that they're no worse than poor substitutes. And it's true that studies have demonstrated the ability of a vegan diet to prevent and even reverse the effects of heart disease. 

Experts were also quick to caution that such findings shouldn’t be taken as evidence that saturated fat is good for you. If it’s not the serial killer it’s long been made out to be, it isn't the guy you want to march down the aisle to the altar with either. “It’s not a beneficial effect but not a harmful effect” is how one study coauthor put it to NPR.

As Alice H. Lichtenstein, a nutritionist at Tufts University and lead author of the dietary guidelines for the American Heart Association, tells the Times: “It would be unfortunate if these results were interpreted to suggest that people can go back to eating butter and cheese with abandon.” Lichtenstein notes that prior studies have indeed found that avoiding saturated fats in favor of foods high in polyunsaturated fats (think fish, nuts, and certain vegetable oils) reduces the risk of heart disease.

For its part, the AHA isn’t budging on dietary guidelines that encourage minimal consumption of saturated fat; in a statement it indicated, “The study published Monday doesn’t change the American Heart Association recommendation of a diet that’s rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, fish and unsaturated fats.”

Other health experts, including some involved in the recent study, agree. Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and coauthor of the study, takes the line of many experts, telling NPR that people should shift from the high-carb, highly processed, and (yes) saturated-fat-laden foods that have come to define the Western diet to one that focuses on “minimally processed whole foods,” such as fruits, vegetable, fish, and nuts (with a bit of cheese and meat thrown in).

Lead author Chowdhury has even stronger words about carbs, telling the Times: “It’s the high carbohydrate or sugary diet that should be the focus of dietary guidelines. If anything is driving your low-density lipoproteins [i.e., “bad” LDL cholesterol], it’s carbohydrates.”