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Can Fast Food Be Lean Cuisine?

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Can fast food be lean cuisine? The major fast-food chains are retooling their menus with lower-fat, low-cal alternatives to burgers and fries.

Watch Jami Floyd's full report on 2020.

If you've got a beef with burgers, Wendy's now has Garden Sensations Salads. If a 700-calorie Whopper is too much for your arteries, Burger King has a new line of chicken baguette sandwiches. Even McDonald's, the mother of all fast-food chains, launched a Premium Salads campaign last spring. After a 13-month slump, sales are up. And Kentucky Fried Chicken has a new series of advertisements portraying the Colonel's finger-lickin' good chicken as a healthy choice.

But is all this fast food-health food really good for you?

"If they're trying to create the impression that Kentucky Fried Chicken in any way is part of a healthy diet, they're liars. Because it isn't," says media critic Bob Garfield of Advertising Age magazine.

But Kentucky Fried Chicken spokesman Jonathan Bloome says fried chicken has gotten a bum rap.

"Don't feel guilty about eating fried chicken. It can be part of a healthy diet," Bloome says.

"If you take the skin off, it's only 3 grams of fat, 140 calories and zero carbs," he said.

KFC says that with the skin on, one chicken breast has only 11 grams of carbohydrates and 19 grams of fat. But there may be a problem with that, too.

Garfield wonders who eats just a single piece of the Colonel's chicken. "You know, it's like, who eats one potato chip? The whole idea of KFC, you know, they don't serve it in a bucket for nothin'," he said.

And the Center for Science in the Public Interest also has a bone to pick with KFC. "It's shameful that a major company would stoop to pretending that its fried chicken is essentially a health food. That's why we're filing a complaint with the FTC [Federal Trade Commission]," said Michael Jacobsen, the group's executive director.

Indeed, KFC ads contain a disclaimer that its fried chicken is not a low-fat, low-sodium, low-cholesterol food.

Garfield says the fact that there is a disclaimer "is a gigantic signal to the consumer that everything that we're actually saying aloud is baloney."

The bottom line, say the experts, is that fried chicken is just not good for you.

Giving Health Food a Bad Name?

New York Times food columnist Marion Burros spent the last three weeks eating her way through the so-called healthy options offered by eight of the top fast-food franchises.

The salads, says Burros, are the best example of where you can go wrong. They're tasty, she says, if you dump on all the forbidden toppings - especially high-calorie dressing.

If calorie counting is what you're up to, Burros says, you're better off with a sandwich. "If I could find a Subway, I would go," she says, "because you have complete control over what you're eating."

That's right: Jared's diet plan. Jared Fogle became a household name when he lost more than 200 pounds on Subway sandwiches. But without all the toppings.

Garfield says that Subway has carefully positioned itself as unique in the fast-food market.

"You go into Subway and you have a low-fat sandwich for lunch and you can do almost anything for dinner," Garfield says. "You can eat chocolate ice cream out of the tub."

Even with the healthy meals, you've got to be smart about it. No cheese, no special sauce, nothing deep-fried. Take the McDonald's Cobb salad, which comes with crumbled blue cheese, smoked bacon bits, chopped egg. Top it with crispy fried chicken and squeeze on the entire packet of ranch dressing and you're at well over 600 calories. That's more calories and fat than a Big Mac has.

So how do the healthy choices - if eaten without all the extras - rate for taste against a burger with fries? For Burros, not well.

"I thought most of it gave healthy food a bad name," she said.

But if you're stuck, Burros does have a few recommendations.

One is Pizza Hut. According to Burros, the pizza has lower-fat cheese, and there's much less cheese, and it also offers a thin-crusted pizza. She also recommends Burger King's baguette sandwiches. "Because the rest of it was so bad, they stood out," she said.

The current trend may be toward healthier fare, but some of the foods that made these chains famous in the first place - like a single burger - have no more calories or fat than the items advertised as healthy. That's why the basic burger is still king.

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Copyright 2003 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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