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July 13, 2006

Heading: Talk of the Table, photo of McDonald's Asian chicken salad

A leafy interlude at McD's

The call came from out of the blue. After determining that I was the food columnist for the Journal, the woman asked me a simple question: "Have you tried the new McDonald's Asian chicken salad?"

"No, I haven't," I replied, not mentioning that I could not even remember the last time I had eaten at a McDonald's.

"Would you like to try it?" she continued, explaining that she would be happy to have salads delivered to me and my co-workers.

"But McDonald's doesn't deliver," I pointed out. She said that would not be a problem, they'd get them to us, any day I chose.

"Um, sure, why not?" I acquiesced and made arrangements for lunch on a Thursday after one of our weekly editorial staff meetings.

By chance, the unsolicited offer came when I was in the midst of reading Michael Pollan's new book, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, a bestseller which, you might recall, was discussed by our book/garden columnist Amy Stewart just last month.

Those who are familiar with the book know that the first of the four meals Pollan dissects (at great length) is a fast food drive-through lunch from McDonald's, shared with his family. It's the culmination of the "Industrial" section of his book in which he offers a history of the recent evolution of the American diet to one dominated by corn — to the detriment of our health, the environment and the farmer, according to Pollan.

Pollan paints a frightening picture of a food system gone awry, influenced by bad government policies and megacorporations that encourage a dangerous monoculture. The result: meals of corn-fed chicken, beef and pork, washed down with soda that's primarily high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), consumed while we drive in cars fueled by ethanol made from corn.

In a follow-up call, Jesse Waters from the PR firm DuDell & Associates confirmed arrangements for the salad delivery and suggested that I might want to talk with a registered dietitian for what she called my "Advice to Families On-the-Go This Summer" article. She suggested Jo Ann Hattner, who teaches nutrition courses at Stanford University's medical school. When I called to arrange an interview, I let her know right away that McDonald's is not exactly the first place that comes to mind when I think about healthful food.

"I know there's a lot of criticism out there," said Hattner, "but my interest is in guiding people. They're going to go — can we guide people once they're there to make choices, and to make choices for their kids?"

I told her that I'd been working my way through The Omnivore's Dilemma, and, since it discusses McDonald's directly, it might come up in my story. She had not read the book, but thought she probably should.

When we spoke a couple of days later, I asked Hattner if McDonald's Asian chicken salad is a good choice for someone who is concerned about their diet and trying to watch what they eat.

"Definitely," said Hattner — twice. She chuckled as she let me know she went out and bought Michael Pollan's book, telling me, "I've been reading it with great interest," before shifting into spin mode.

She figures Pollan's "main complaint" is regarding the industrialization of our food supply. "But really what he's talking about is foods that become highly processed, and what we need more of is natural fresh food. This [salad] is a natural fresh food look at how many different greens they use and the vegetables and fruit they use. I think people may not even know that it's available."

Conceding that hamburgers and French fries are still the best-selling things at McD's, she pointed to the growing popularity of chicken. "If you're looking for a high quality protein that is lower in saturated fat, then you get the skinless chicken breast."

When I pointed out that the salad comes either with an orange-glazed "grilled" breast (flat-grilled, not char-grilled) or "crispy" chicken, a breaded piece that's deep fat fried, she said she prefers the grilled breast, which she figures suits the salad better taste-wise, "but also, if you're looking for a healthful choice, the grilled would be better."

photo of McDonald's Asian chicken saladWhat about the "all natural" Newman's Own® Lighten Up!® Low-fat Sesame Ginger salad dressing? While our salads came with two packages each, Hattner said they are normally served with just one, and she recommends using just half the package. "It's a highly flavored dressing and I don't think you need the full package, but again, that's my taste."

Judging from the ingredients list, the sweet flavor comes from high fructose corn syrup, which follows water and soy sauce as a major component of the dressing. Is that a concern from a dietary perspective? Our conversation shifted to discussion of the economics of HFCS (it's cheaper) and on to the USDA's recommended guidelines (the new food pyramid), which suggests no more than 10 percent of calories come from sugar.

"So it's about your overall sugar intake and if you're getting sugars through your foods, then we recommend that you'd not want really high-sugared beverages," Hattner said.

She pointed out that the Asian salads served as part of the McDonald's "Adult Happy Meal" come with a bottle of water. Never having heard of an Adult Happy Meal, I wondered aloud if it came with a prize. It does! A DVD on how to do yoga. Who'd a thunk it?

And what was the opinion of the crew at the Journal office? My co-workers were already eating their salads by the time I returned from thanking Jerry Reece, owner of the Eureka McDonald's franchise, who had personally delivered them. Hank retired to his office to take an important call and polish his off, declaring it "just unhealthy enough." Luke the intern deemed his "the least offensive McDonald's meal I've had." Helen ate hers quietly, reserving judgment.

Heidi was the most vocal, noting it was the first McDonald's food she'd had since leaving Vegas. She's allergic to oranges and almonds and so was leery to say the least, discarding the packages of sliced almonds that came on the side. "I probably shouldn't eat this, but I'm really hungry," she said, picking the salad apart, moving the mandarin orange slices to one side. Hers was one of the "crispy" chicken breasts and, worried that the breading had orange juice in it (it did), she tore the coating off, ate the fatty white chicken meat within, salvaged some lettuce, then guiltily threw the bulk of the salad into the trash.

I dressed mine with one package of dressing and ate the whole thing, inventorying the ingredients one forkful at a time. Most of the salad was just that, salad greens, the bulk of them iceberg lettuce, but with a fair amount of darker green (and thus more nutritious) spring mix. Some thin-sliced carrot added color, as did eight canned mandarin orange slices, a sprinkling of roasted red bells and two snow peas. A handful of edamame (soy beans) added to the protein from the chicken, and, as Hattner pointed out, a vegetarian could skip the chicken and still get a nourishing meal. The chicken breast was indeed made flavorful by an orange glaze, but was too sweet for my taste, particularly in conjunction with the dressing, which was almost syrupy from the HFCS.

Overall, it wasn't bad — and I guess it wasn't bad for me — but I prefer the chicken salad I get from Hunan Village with its spicy mustard dressing, crunchy rice sticks, shredded head lettuce, crushed peanuts and boiled chicken, even if it's not as good for me.

Is it a good thing that a place like McDonald's offers healthier choices? Of course it is. But you know what? When Dad and Mom and the kids drive through, I'm guessing most of the time their choices will be like the Pollan family's: Dad had a burger and fries, Mom had the salad and their boy had McNuggets. It takes more than wholesome options to get kids to choose salad.

your Talk of the Table comments, recipes and ideas to Bob Doran.


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