Friday, November 05, 2010

Everyone hates the KFC "Double Down"

Why are we humans so gullible as to believe in things that are obviously not true, like astrology, homeopathy, and stuff Joe Morgan says?

One argument is that it's a question of being numerate and understanding the scientific method. If people who believe in homeopathy truly understood that there isn't even one molecule of active ingredient of their "medicines," they might be swayed. And if only Joe Morgan learned a bit about how the Runs Created formula actually works, he'd understand why we've reached the conclusions we have and come over to our side. It's just a matter of education.


Well, I'm not so sure that's true. Case in point: the reaction to KFC's "Double Down" sandwich.


The "sandwich" consists of two breaded, boneless chicken breasts, with bacon and cheese and sauce in between. There's no bun. (If you've never seen one before, here's a picture.)

The Double Down has been available in the US for a few months now, but it just came to Canada about a month ago, and all the usual nutrition and obesity spokespeople are flipping out. Google "double down Canada," and see for yourself:


-- "KFC's Double Down hits Canada; nutritionists worried - CTV News"

-- "Double Down, Canada: We gobble artery-clogging fat fare from KFC in record numbers"


-- "KFC’s Double Down raises eyebrows among Canadian nutrition experts."

There's lots more than that. For instance, my local paper, the Ottawa Citizen, had TWO editorial cartoons about the Double Down in the last couple of weeks. (Here's one of them.)


So what's the big problem? I don't see it. The Double Down isn't really any worse than other fast food items. It has 540 calories (including 30g of fat) and 1,740 mg of sodium. The Big Mac, which nutritionists don't seem to be pooping themselves over, has the same 540 calories (28g fat) and 1,020 mg of sodium. And the double Wendy's Baconator has 980 calories (63g fat) and 1,830 mg of sodium. (Let's not even talk about the triple.)


So the Double Down doesn't seem like that big a deal. Yes, it's got a little more sodium per calorie than the other two items, but, really, not that much more. And it's not like KFC is any worse than chicken anywhere else.

A KFC breaded boneless chicken breast has 560 mg of sodium. I went down to my kitchen and pulled out a box of President's Choice frozen breaded chicken breasts. Each one has ... exactly the same, 560 mg of sodium. I checked the "blue menu" variation of those chicken breasts, the ones with less fat and fewer calories: 450 mg. And, finally, I checked non-breaded honey-lemon chicken breasts: each breast had 460 mg of sodium. Those are the healthiest, least-fatty ones, at only 150 calories each.


So, again, what's the big deal? It looks to me like seasoned chicken breasts routinely have salt added to make them taste good.

So why blame KFC?
Is it because of innumeracy? Do the nutritionists and the journalists simply not understand what the numbers mean? No, it's not. It's the opposite, in fact. Every article I've seen points out that other fast food products aren't much better, and they all print the numbers for calories and sodium. But, somehow, it goes in one sentence and out the other.

Why is the Double Down singled out for so much opprobrium?
Because it has no bun. I think it's a status thing. Having no bun -- or rather, having a bun made out of meat -- is weird, and weird in a lower-class non-gourmet way. It looks like gluttony -- chicken and more chicken, stacked so high it's hard to bite into. It's something that truckers might eat, but cultured nutritionists, and educated people who care about obesity of the lower classes -- well, when they want to eat chicken, they use a knife and fork ... or, at least, put it in a bun like civilized people.

Furthermore, the existence of the Double Down feels like a personal attack on nutritionists. Because it has no bun, it's kind of fun, with overtones of gluttony. People who take nutrition seriously *hate* that. Food isn't supposed to be fun. It's supposed to be serious. Nutritionists have spent years and years getting degrees and becoming experts on what's good to eat and what's not ... and now what happens? KFC tries something completely different, appealing to people's appetites in a whole new way, *without even consulting the nutritionists*!

Without the absence of the bun, none of this happens, because there's really intrinsically nothing special about the product. Think about it:


1. The Double Down is made of two breaded boneless chicken breasts. But KFC has had those same boneless chicken breasts around for some time now. They actually offered them in a meal, but flat on a plate, with a knife and fork, and two side dishes. Nobody complained, and nobody took notice.


If I were to order that, and take the tray to my table, and eat it, nobody would look twice. But if I took those two patties, stacked them up on top of each other, and spread the the honey mustard sauce between them, and then I picked up my newly-constructed double-decker greasy chicken thingy in my two hands, and ate them that way ... well, people would stare, and some of them would be grossed out.
Even though it's the same meal, they'd think I was a disgusting pig, and wonder why I'm not ill and obese.

Same product, different presentation, completely different reactions. It's the shape of the Double Down, not the content. To some, stacked chicken patties with sauce in the middle is disgusting. But "that's disgusting" won't get them taken seriously, so they have to complain about the nutritional content.


2. McDonald's has a breaded chicken sandwich. They'll let you make it a double for an additional charge, and they'll be happy to add cheese and bacon. Nobody complains. Why? Because it's got a bun. Take away the bun, and what have you got? The McDonald's version of a Double Down.

3. There's a well-regarded product that are almost exactly the equivalent of the Double Down, and nobody complains. It's Chicken McNuggets. Well, it's not exactly the same, because there's no cheese or bacon. But a 10-piece McNuggets, with two sauces, otherwise has almost exactly the same profile as the Double Down: 610 calories (35g fat), and 1560 mg sodium.

But McNuggets are bite sized. You eat them individually and daintily. You don't stack them all up and ooze the sauce in between them.

4. Okay, here's an established main course that really IS almost exactly a Double Down: Chicken Cordon Bleu. It's a breaded chicken breast, and when you cut it open, there's cheese and butter and ham inside. (Yes, it's ham instead of bacon, but close enough.) If you look up nutrition information for Chicken Cordon Bleu, it's pretty close. It has to be -- the ingredients are almost the same.

Chicken cordon bleu is classy, classy enough to serve at weddings. Foodies don't mind it, and nobody campaigns against it. But if KFC sold it, and made you eat it with your hands? Yuck!
It's gross, and the multinational corporate megagiant doesn't care about the health of its customers!

-----


We humans have a "blink" mentality -- we see a situation and come to a conclusion in an instant. Often, those conclusions are wrong, fed by our prejudices.
Overcoming those prejudices does indeed take numeracy and intelligence.

But the most important thing it takes is a willingness to think about the issue with an open mind.

No matter how smart you are, and no matter how many math courses you've taken, you still have to be able to put aside your instinctive first impression and take a fair look at the issue and the evidence.
Of all the people who'd be able to evaluate a foodstuff with a clear eye, you'd think nutritionists and health experts would be at the top of the list. But despite all their expertise -- or perhaps because of it -- they're among the worst offenders.

(In fairness, it could be selective sampling; the nutritionists who don't have a problem with it wouldn't be out for media attention. But you'd think if they were that common, some reporter would have found a few to present a countering view.)

In Ontario, the minister in charge of health promotion even started talking about *banning* the Double Down. She was quickly shot down by the Premier. But still -- the public official in charge of public health, the one who you'd think would have the most responsibility to see both sides and evaluate the situation, had the most extreme, prejudiced reaction. It's as if the head of the American Bar Association suddenly called for an impromptu lynching, with a thousand lawyers lining up behind her.


The solution is not just to teach more math. The solution is to make it socially unacceptable to accept silly, unjustified arguments. There are some places where we've been partially successful. We're able to do that, at least a little bit, in academia, where peer review at least calls out the cranks. We're able to do that in the justice system -- I'd bet that few judges would give credence to the argument that the Double Down is significantly worse than the Baconator just because you consume it more lustily.

We just have to promote that way of thinking in everyday life -- which is difficult, and perhaps impossible. But in my utopia, when nutritionist Joe Morgans say that Chicken Cordon Bleu is worse for you when you use your hands instead of a plate, we stop quoting them in approving newspaper articles, and laugh at them instead.


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12 Comments:

At Friday, November 05, 2010 10:08:00 PM, Anonymous Jake Russ said...

If you haven't already, take a look at Nate Silver's rundown of the Double Down.

http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2010/04/double-down-by-numbers-unhealthiest.html

 
At Friday, November 05, 2010 10:12:00 PM, Blogger David Pinto said...

Well done, Phil, well done.

 
At Saturday, November 06, 2010 2:29:00 PM, Blogger Vic Ferrari said...

Well said. When I first saw the advert it just sruck me as the fast food version of chicken cordon bleu, as you say. I've never eaten one and don't plan to, but the hoopla surrounding the thing is bonkers.

In fairness, KFC seems to have brought this on themselves, probably intentionally. "The chicken IS the bun!". Plus nobody picks up chicken cordon bleu and eats it with their hands, at least not now that Pavorotti is dead.

Still, if you're starting counting today, it's marketing 1, math 0. If you continue to keep track, I think you'll see the former really run up the score. :)

 
At Saturday, November 06, 2010 5:25:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article. I've also been getting annoyed by the "OMGZ McDonalds meals don't go mouldy!!" meme. So what?? There are already plenty of reasons not to eat fast food (the disgusting taste being the main one), without resorting to misleading, unscientific crap like that.

 
At Saturday, November 06, 2010 5:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just a thought: what if our "blink" reaction is right for different reasons? I'm not a nutritionalist and I haven't tried the double down, but after reading your well-through-out remarks, I got to thinking. How you eat something IS important. No, it doesn't change the caloric value of the foodstuff, but it does change the way people think about said foodstuff, and therefore, how people consume it. Now, let's avoid the "are fast-food restaurants responsible for our behavior" argument, and simply home in this single point. If you are encouraged to hold and think about an entire meal as though it were a snack, aren't you more likely to eat them more often?

 
At Saturday, November 06, 2010 6:16:00 PM, Blogger Raju said...

Nutritionists need to say something to keep their jobs

 
At Saturday, November 06, 2010 6:27:00 PM, Blogger SportsGuy said...

Every generation the nutritionists have something different to say. In a few years when we come to our senses and realize how bad bread is the DD will be looked upon more kindly.

 
At Saturday, November 06, 2010 11:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Phil,

Have you had the time to look at this paper on adjusted plus/minus for hockey? Would be interesting to hear your take on it.

http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/1006/1006.4310v3.pdf

 
At Sunday, November 07, 2010 12:09:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Um, if this article was held to the same standard the author wishes upon others it would go in the same bin as the Double Down articles he so despises.

"(In fairness, it could be selective sampling; the nutritionists who don't have a problem with it wouldn't be out for media attention. But you'd think if they were that common, some reporter would have found a few to present a countering view.)"

I would have expected the point to be too obvious to mention: the selection bias at work here is from _the media_, not public health experts. The vast majority of public health professionals have a problem with both Big Macs _and_ KFC Double Downs.

As it turns out -- for completely predictable reasons -- the media (and the public at large) doesn't care nearly as much about what public health professionals have to say about about Big Macs. People working in public health are not to blame for the inconsistency, as anyone who's thought about how the media works for five minutes already realizes.

 
At Monday, November 08, 2010 12:42:00 PM, Anonymous skyjo said...

Very well written, sir. Thank you for addressing this issue with logic and reason.

 
At Monday, November 08, 2010 3:36:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You make a good point about the vilifying of the Double Down when it's really no worse than other fast food. I do have an issue with the Double Down/Chicken Cordon Bleu comparison.

1. Just because the basic ingredients are similar does not mean they are comparable. Foodies don't have a problem with CCB because it can be made using natural ingredients, not because it's supposed to be healthy. A foodie ≠ a nutritionist!

2. Well done Anonymous. The Double Down is just a media sensation representative of a larger problem.

 
At Friday, November 26, 2010 9:45:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an aside, not entirely unrelated to the article but important still:
Maybe this is different in Canada, but here in the US, being a "nutritionist" doesn't mean anything. If you're looking for the opinion of an expert in food and nutrition, you should be speaking to dietitians.
Maybe it's the press that's talking to "nutritionists" and you're just relating what's in the media, but everybody should know that the title "nutritionist" is not legally protected in most jurisdictions.

 

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