Sunday, June 21, 2009

The End of Overeating - Chilli's

Wow, my wife bought me this book for Father's Day. Its a book I commented on earlier, here. The premise is that the food industry produces food that is easy chew and consume in large quantities, food that has layers upon layers of fat, sugar, and salt. And as a result, this type of food has a reinforcing effect, prompting us to desire more of it, to consume more of it, even when we are not hungry.

Here's a chapter on Chilli's (lesson for me, Chilli's is evil):

This paragraph describes a woman he watched eating at Chilli's - he easily could have described me:
"I was sitting at Chili's Grill & Bar in Chicago's O'Hare Airport waiting for a late-night flight. At a nearby table a couple in their early forties was deep into a meal. The woman was overweight, with about 180 pounds on her five-foot-four-inch frame. The Southwestern Eggrolls she had ordered were listed as a starter course, but the enormous platter in front of her had been heaped with food. The dish was described on the menu as 'smoked chicken, black beans, corn, jalapeno Jack cheese, red peppers, and spinach wrapped inside a crispy flour tortilla', and it was served with a creamy avacado-ranch dipping sauce. Despite its name, the dish looked more like a burrito than an egg roll, an only-in-America fusion approach.

I watched as the woman attacked her food with vigor and speed. She held the egg roll in one hand, dunked it into the sauce, and brought it to her mouth while using the fork in her other hand to scoop up more sauce. Occasionally she reached over and speared some of her companion's french fries. The woman ate steadily, working her way around the plate with scant pause for conversation or rest. When she finally paused, only a little lettuce was left.

Had she known someone was watching her, I'm sure she would have eaten differently. Had she been asked to describe what she had just eaten, she probably would have substantially underestimated her consumption. And she would probably have been surprised to learn what the ingredients in her meal really were.

The woman might have been interested in how my industry source, who had called sugar, fat, and salt the three points of the compass, described her entree. Deep-frying the tortilla drives down its water content from 40 percent to about 5 percent and replaces the rest with fat. 'The tortilla is going to absorb a lot of fat,' he said. 'It looks like an egg roll is supposed to look, which is crispy and brown on the outside.'

The food consultant read through other ingredients on the label, keeping up a running commentary as he did. 'Cooked white meat chicken, binder added, smoke flavor. People like smoky flavor -it's the caveman in them.'

'There's green stuff in there,' he said, noting the spinach. 'That makes me feel like I'm eating something healthy.'

'Shredded Monterey Jack cheese... The increase in per-capita consumption of cheese is off the chart.'

The hot peppers, he said 'add a little spice, but not too much to kill everything else off.'

He believed the chicken had been chopped and formed much like a meat loaf, with binders added, which makes those calories easy to swallow. Ingredients that hold moisture, including autolyzed yeast extract, sodium phoshpate, and soy protein concentrate further soften the food. I noticed that salt appeared eight times on the label and that sweeteners were there five times, in the form of corn-syrup solids, molasses, honey, brown sugar, and sugar.

'This is highly processed?' I asked.

'Absolutely, yes. All of this has been processed such that you can wolf it down fast...chopped up and made ultrapalatable... Very appealing looking, very high pleasure food, very high caloric density. Rules out all that stuff you have to chew.'

By eliminating the need to chew, modern food processing techniques allow us to eat faster. 'When you're eating these things, you've had 500, 600, 800, 900 calories before you know it,' said the consultant. 'Literally before you know it.' Refined food simply melts in the mouth."

"With more than 1,400 locations and $3.2 million in sales per restaurant in 2007, Chilli's has been immensely popular. I visited the chain's restaurants in perhaps twelve different settings, many of them more than once. Often the restaurant was full, and sometimes crowds clustered at thte front door waiting for tables.

At a Chilli's north of the Golden Gate Bridge, I ordered Kick' Jack Nachos, where were a featured appetizer, and two entree - Boneless Shanghai Wings and Margarita Grilled Chicken - for myself and a colleague.

First, the Kickin' Jack Nachos. The plate was artfully presented, with the chips arranged in a circle surrounding a colorful chopped salad topped with a mound of pico de gallo salsa and another mound of sour cream. A slice of jalapeno pepper rested in the center of every chip. Marketed with the tagline 'Live a Little,' the Kickin' Jacks are a variation on the chain's classic nachos. The fried corn chip serves as the carrier of mashed blackbeans and a layer of zesty Monterey Jack cheese (there's more cheese in the Kickin' Jack nachos than in the classic version). A margarita spice mix gives them 'extra kick'.

Next Boneless Shanghai Wings. As described on the menu, these were 'crispy breaded chicken breast topped with sweet and spicy ginger-citrus sauce and sesame seeds. Served with spicy-cool wasabi-ranch dressing for dipping.' A dozen fat and textured chicken nuggets were set down in front of me - they looked great and had flavor to match.

Finally, Margarita Grilled Chicken. 'We start with tender, juicy chicken breast, marinate it with our classic Margarita flavoring, and grill it to perfection,' according to the menu. The dish is served with rice, black beans, strips of fried tortilla, and salsa. My dinner companion seemed to think it was relatively healthy.

Like the other dishes, it's artistically presented - a crosshatch of grill marks blackens both sides of the large, boneless breast, which sits atop accompaniments of contrasting colors and textures. The uncooked chicken had been in a marinade that combine orange juice, tequila, triple sec, sweet and sour mix, and artificial color, thereby including sugar, two kinds of oil, and salt. It was shipped in twenty-five-pound bags, each containing fifty pieces of meat, plus whey protein concentrate and modified tapioca starch.

Nick Nickleson, chief scientist at the Dallas-based Standard Meat, a supplier to Chilli's, said that the chicken and marinade tumbled together in a piece of equipment that resembled a cement mixer. 'It pulls the marinade into the muscle,' said Nickelson breaking down the cellular structure of the meat and tenderizing it in the process

Another common way to to get marinade into mat is through needle injection. Hundreds of needles are used to pierce the meat, tearing up the connective tissue. 'It's been prechewed,' said Billy Rosenthal, former president of Standard Meat.

For all that, very little in the appearance or flavor of Chili's food suggests how much sugar, fat, or salt it contains, or how easily it goes down. A woman siting near me eater nachos finished about two-thirds of her portion and then pushed her plate to the far side of her table. A few seconds later, she reached over and began to nibble again.

Every time I order food at Chili's I casually ask the server, 'What's in this?' Sometimes I asked the same question of the manager. I never asked for the recipe - I knew that was proprietary information. I didn't care what spices and seasonings were used, but I did want to know the major ingredients in the food I was ordering. As a consumer, I thought it was reasonable to find out what I was going to eat.

Staff were generally reluctant to answer the question.

'We can't tell you,' one manager said flatly.

'What are you concerned about?' asked a server. 'What are your allergies?'

'I'm not sure I'm allowed to say,' someone else said hesitantly.

Whatever the ingredients, my food consultant contact seemed to understand why some foods just slide down the throat. About Boneless Shanghai Wings, he said, 'Taking it off the bone is like taking the husk off the nut.' That processing step reduces the need for chewing, making the food faster to consume.

Those wings contain a solution of up to 25 percent water, hydrolyzed soy protein, salt, and sodium phosphate. The water is in there for several reasons. First, it bulks up the chicken - the industry calls this 'reducing shrinkage'. Second, water is cheaper than chicken breast, so it's less costly to produce. And finally, water makes the food softer and chewing easier.

Before the chicken is shipped from the manufacturing plant, it's battered, breaded, predusted, and frozen. This creates a salty coating that becomes crispy when fried in fat. 'All this stuff absorbs fat, dries out this batter and breading and replaces water with oil. So now you've got batter and breading that is probably 40 percent fat,' according to the food consultant. The crispy coating which also contains corn-syrup solids, dried yeast, and soybean oil, may represent up to half the volume of the nuggets on the plate.

Boxes containing eight four-pound bags of ginger-citrus sauce, each with a refrigerated shelf life of about four months, are shipped to Chili's restaurants to accompany the chicken. The ingredients in the sauce sounds relatively benign: sugar, hoisin sauce, vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, chili paste, modified food starch, and orange juice concentrate. But sugar is the dominant nutrient, and salt is listed three times.

The ginger-citrus sauce 'introduces syrupy, sweet, clingy stuff,' said the consultant. 'Sugar on sugar, really just different sugars. And lots of salt. And lots of intense flavor.' The hoison sauce contributes saltiness and a browning effect, while the orange juice concentrate adds a tangy fruit flavor.

Apparently Chilli's considers all of this insufficiently enticing. Accompanying the fried and sweetened chicken concoction is a wasabi ranch dressing, which is made from mayonnaise, buttermilk, spices, and wasabi powder and has a pleasantly sharp bite. 'Wasabi has a kind of a cool, green look to it, and people love creamy', said the consultant. 'The most popular salad dressings are creamy,' he added. 'The most popular soups are creamy.'

The wings are served in a basket lined with waxed paper and bits of strange-looking crispy noodles that absorb excess fat.

'How sensory is the meal?' I asked

'It's the quintessential example of how to cram as much hedonics as you can into one dish,' he answered. The needle on this three-point compass must have been gyrating wildly.

Like most chain restaurants in America, Chili's serves hyper-palatable food that requires little chewing and goes down easily."


Bill said...

Wow, lots of information to digest! I am sure Chilli's is like most restaurants: appealing food that is effotless in consuming. If the food is that easy to eat, I am sure it is that easy to digest. Therefore, our bodies work less to process the food so we burn even less calories. It's a double edged sword. We are consuming more but burning less. These facts are appauling. No wonder close to 50% of the American population is considered overweight or obese. Most are like me, not even aware of the dangers they put into their bodies. Interesting exerp...

April said...

I used to love those southwestern eggrolls. I ordered them for a meal all of the time at ASU. Once Ryan and I starting eating healthier (when the kids came along) we would (and still do)occaasionally eat at restaurants we once loved, like Chilli's and we always regret it afterwards. Bleh!

Anonymous said...

Wow!! I thought Chili's was expensive because they were paying for advertising, now I know it's because they pre-chewed your food for you!!! Chili's just went from gross, to EXTRA GROSS!! Thanks for the info!


Do you plan on seeing "Food INC"?

Writermama said...

YUCK! I'm glad I've never eaten there. I really am a big anti-chain snob. Now I feel even more justified in my potentially annoying and elitist attitude. What sucks is that it dumbs down the taste bud of the masses and everyone gets fatter in the process.

I want to take my kids to see Food Inc.

GREAT post, Scott. You really are providing a valuable service.

H said...

Bill told me about this post and told me I needed to stay away from Chilli's. Sadly, it is the first place to eat when you drive into Payson and the last on the way out. Did you notice it when you went up? Anyway, I've passed it 6 times in the last month and just thought about those eggrolls that I used to love. Bitter-sweet memories I suppose. We'll have to drill you more about that book sometime.