Eat This, Don't Eat That: Who Controls What We Consume?

June 14, 2006 — -- The news that KFC is being sued for the fat levels in its fried chicken raises an important question: Should legal and government entities try to limit what Americans eat?

A nonscientific ballot on suggests most Americans have a free-will mind-set. Asked if KFC should offer more healthy options by changing its menu items, 2,652 readers voted that KFC should be left alone while 951 voted that the menu needs to be changed. The results are current as of 3 p.m. Wednesday. Vote in our new poll here: Trans-Fats Regulations?

Yet trans fat -- found in high quantities in KFC's chicken -- is linked to a lot of dangerous health problems, argues the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which sued the fast-food chain. People need to know this, the center says.

But many people disagree, saying legal procedures do little to truly educate the public, not to mention that singling out fat content does little to help people understand what makes food healthy or unhealthy.

"I don't think you can legislate these kinds of things, because this is an issue of choice," said Madelyn Fernstrom, director of the Weight Management Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "You need to label foods' content so people can limit their quantity of it. Labeling food as 'bad' is not as important as paying attention to portion control."

She and others support educating the public about healthy food choices, such as using food-warning labels.

"The consumer has a right to know what is in the food they choose to buy," said Conrad Earnest, director of the Center for Human Performance and Nutrition Research at the Cooper Institute. "That said, [I am] strongly in favor of having KFC products and others like it labeled accordingly."

Earnest suggests labeling fast-food items that contain trans fatty acids with a certain symbol next to it on the menu. He stated that ultimately such labeling would fall within the hands of the federal Food and Drug Administration.

While this may help educate consumers, singling out trans fats could gloss over other important health issues when it comes to eating.

For example, KFC fried chicken may have a lot of trans fat, which is bad for the arteries, but it also has a lot of calories -- which is bad for the waistline, too. Should the consumer be warned about that? Where is the line drawn?

Dr. Keith-Thomas Ayoob, a pediatrics professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said he is more concerned with the excessive amounts of calories in deep-fried food, since calories may be the bigger issue, given that two out of three people in the United States are overweight.

"If you take out the trans [fat] and substitute another oil, there will be just as many calories, he said.

Meanwhile, J. Justin Wilson, a research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom, said that the answer isn't legal action, calling the CSPI action a "press conference" lawsuit meant to attract media attention. His organization is composed of restaurants, food companies and consumers.

"[CSPI] should start reaching out to consumers and asking what consumers really want. CSPI acts as if they know what consumers want, but there aren't people marching in the streets having KFC remove trans fat from their food," said Wilson.

However, fast-food chains do appear to be concerned about bad publicity. In the past few years, several fast-food chains have started offering healthier food choices. Wendy's International Inc., for example, began using nonhydrogenated oil to fry its french fries and breaded chicken items.