Tony and Carrie Chang usually draw a big holiday crowd at their Imperial Hunan Chinese restaurant in Manhattan. But business at the family-owned eaterie was downright lousy over the Labor Day weekend. The reason, the Changs discovered by querying previously loyal customers: a heavily publicized study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a research group in Washington, D.C., concluding that Chinese food is often just as fatty, salt-laden, and high in calories as a Big Mac with a large order of fries.
The question now worrying Chinese food purveyors: Is the furor over the new study a tempest in a teapot, or has Chinese food earned a permanent bad rap? The study dealt only with take-out food, but sales of everything from ConAgra Inc.'s La Choy and Chun King brands to General Mills Inc.'s China Coast restaurant chain may be affected.
SERIOUS EATERS. Americans take such dietary news seriously. Beef consumption, for example, dropped by 4.5% during the 1980s as the public became more aware of its health risks. On the plus side, the wine industry credits a 28% increase in red-wine sales last year to a 1991 60 Minutes episode suggesting that red wine helps prevent heart disease.
Just how bad can Chinese food be? "The results shocked even us," says nutritionist Jayne Hurley, who headed the research team. For instance, the study found that a typical take-out serving of Kung Pao Chicken, a spicy diced-chicken dish, has about the same fat content (76 grams) as four McDonald's Quarter Pounders (table). Orange Crispy Beef, another popular take-out dish, has more calories than four orders of McDonald's french fries.
That was big news to many Chinese-food eaters. A Food Marketing Institute survey--taken before the Science in the Public Interest study--showed that some 52% of Americans considered Chinese food healthier than fast food.
Nonetheless, corporate Chinese-food makers aren't nervous yet. ConAgra says it isn't planning to drop or reconfigure any of the fattier items in its frozen Chinese lineup. "Let's face it, an egg roll that isn't fattening wouldn't be an egg roll," says a spokeswoman. And General Mills, which operates eight China Coast restaurants, says that its Chinese food is good for you. "The study is very misleading to the public," says Terry Cheng, China Coast's director of menu planning, citing unknowns such as the cuts of chicken examined by the researchers. "It absolutely doesn't matter to us." China Coast is sticking with plans to open 30 new outlets by next May.
By then, figures Martin Yan, a chef and Chinese cookbook author whose Yan Can Cook show runs on PBS stations around the world, the scare may have passed. Americans, Yan predicts, will simply "learn how to eat Chinese food properly." That, he says, means ordering the healthier dishes--and eating them the right way.
"CHOLESTEROL BOMB." Most Americans, it turns out, eat Chinese food all wrong. The dishes most people like best, according to the study, are the least healthy ones: moo shoo pork, sweet-and-sour dishes, and beef with broccoli. "Look at older Chinese," says Carrie Chang. "They're not fat." Native Chinese and Chinese-Americans eat four times as much rice with their meals and tend not to eat much of the rich sauce that comes with beef, chicken, and vegetable dishes. The typical American diner often dumps an entire entree--sauce and all--on top of a mound of rice. "The rice soaks up the sauce, and you've got yourself a cholesterol bomb," says researcher Hurley.
What's a healthy eater to do? Hurley suggests opting for steamed dishes. An average dinner-sized portion of shrimp and garlic sauce is a good choice, with 945 calories and 27 grams of fat. The same portion of stir-fried vegetables, with 746 calories and 19 grams of fat, is another good option. If you must eat sweet-and-sour pork, avoid too much sauce.
The Changs predict the bad publicity about Chinese food will blow over. Meanwhile, another set of restaurateurs had better start worrying. The Center for Science says its next study will focus on Italian food. Pizza eaters, repent.