Friday, April 30, 2010

Is the Double Down really that unhealthy?

Because I'll try anything once, and because I wanted to see (or, rather, taste) what all of the fuss was about, a couple of days ago I went to KFC and purchased their infamous Double Down, a bacon-and-cheese sandwich notable for the fact that the bread is replaced by two slabs of chicken.

I ate it and thought that it really was pretty good. I got the grilled version, instead of the breaded-and-fried version. It was spicy, but not overwhelmingly so. The chicken breasts were tender and the cheese was freshly melted. Its taste reminded me of chicken-smothered-with-cheese dishes I've eaten at sit-down restaurants, such as the Monterrey Chicken at Chili's (grilled chicken topped with cheeses and bacon).

Its taste aside, the Double Down has been controversial ever since it was introduced earlier this month. Why, when the United States is struggling with an obesity epidemic, would KFC unapologetically introduce a food that is so seemingly gluttonous and unhealthy?

Well, the obvious answer to that is that KFC thinks it will sell. They are a for-profit business, after all, and for all the fingers we as a society point at the fast food industry for its role in the nation's obesity epidemic, the fact remains that we as consumers are the ones buying their food.

But compared to other fast-food fare, is the Double Down, with its chicken, bacon, cheeses and sauce, really that unhealthy? The Original Recipe version weighs in at 540 calories - the same as a McDonald's Big Mac - and the grilled version comes in at 460 calories. Not health food by any means, but in terms of calories, fat and sodium, you could do a lot worse when it comes to fast food. The Consumerist had no trouble finding ten fast food menu items that were less healthy than the Double Down, including Burger King's Tendercrisp Garden Salad (so much for salads being healthy...) and Wendy's Baconator sandwich.

Nate Silver at took the analysis a step further, comparing the Double Down to other fast food (and even some sit-down restaurant) offerings in terms of the amount of fat, sodium and cholesterol. He argues that, while in absolute terms the Double Down does not deliver as much "unhealthiness" as items such as a chicken burrito from Chipotle or a Monster Thickburger from Hardees, on a calorie-to-calorie basis it really is unhealthy, because it contains more fat, sodium and cholesterol per calorie. He concludes:
So, is the Double Down the most gluttonous fast food sandwich ever created? It depends on how you measure it. At the margins, consuming one Double Down almost certainly isn't as bad for you as a Triple Baconator, a Thickburger, or even a fully-loaded Chipotle burrito. But while those products should, in theory, fill you up for at least half the day, the Double Down might leave you hankering for seconds. It's a high bar to clear, but it's the closest thing to pure junk food of any "sandwich" being marketed today.
I'm not sure I completely agree with this, because his analysis has one glaring omission: carbohydrates. Considering the growing body of research regarding the unhealthy effects that simple carbohydrates - like those in the refined-flour buns on most sandwiches - have on the body, the low-carb Double Down might not be that unhealthy after all (in that regard, the grilled version is probably perfectly fine for those on the Atkins Diet).

But, as I said earlier, the Double Down is not anyone's idea of health food, and, while I thought it was tasty, it is not something I'll be eating on a regular basis. But at least now I can say I've tried it!

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