KFC's Double Down, IHOP’s Pancake Stackers: More Than A Mouthful

KFC and IHOP are just two of the national food chains to recently introduce big-plate offerings to customers that are drawing criticism for being both unhealthy and over-sized in portion. Host Michel Martin speaks with Tom Sietsema, a food critic for The Washington Post, about KFC's Double Downer — which boasts 1,380 milligrams of sodium — and IHOP's Pancake Stackers Combo Meal — which packs a whopping 1,250 calories.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Now we're going to talk about food. In a few minutes we're going to talk about salt. Now, salt plays a role in scripture, poetry, history, but now experts are telling us to eat a lot less of it, but why? And equally importantly, how? We'll hear from a chef and a nutritionist in just a few minutes.

But, first, we want to talk about big food. Recently a number of our leading fast food companies have been urging us to eat more of their offerings. They are sizing up. We asked Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema to have a bite or two or three on our behalf. He's going to tell us more. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. TOM SIETSEMA (Food Critic, The Washington Post): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: You know, Tom, it's a little counterintuitive, isn't it that, one, we're in a recession, number two, there's been so much talk about our country's difficulties with weight and how many citizens are having trouble keeping their weight under control. So, in a way it seems counterintuitive that a number of kind of fast food and what they call casual dining restaurants are now emphasizing bigger and bigger plates. Why do you think that is?

Mr. SIETSEMA: Well, I think, first of all, restaurant portions are about a third to double the size of normal. I see it all the time when I eat out, regardless of whether it's high end or fast food. And people in the states have come to expect big, bigger and biggest no matter, you know, what's going on in the economy. This is America, you know. Unfortunately, over 60 percent of the U.S. adult population is obese and that's really disturbing to me.

MARTIN: If people aren't really clear on what we're talking about, I just want to give a couple of examples. IHOP introduced something they're calling the pancake stackers combo meal (unintelligible).

Mr. SIETSEMA: Cheesecake with your pancakes.

MARTIN: Cheesecake lodged between two buttermilk pancakes. And if you add in the bacon and the eggs, it clocks in at a whopping 1,250 calories and KFC has started that Double Down. That's a sandwich which substitutes bread for two pieces of fried chicken and it's filled with bacon, cheese and the colonel's secret sauce and it packs in 540 calories, 32 grams of fat and 1,380 milligrams of sodium. And I'll just play a short clip just to see if we can get your juices flowing there. Here it is.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Unidentified Man #1: Now this is a chicken sandwich.

Unidentified Man #2: The new KFC Double Down chicken sandwich. So much 100 percent premium chicken, we didn't have room for a bun. Try it in original recipe or grilled. And colonel, you the man. (unintelligible) un-hungry side of KFC.

MARTIN: Well, Tom, you graciously accepted our challenge to Double Down on our behalf.

Mr. SIETSEMA: I did. I did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: In the name of journalism. Thank you for that.

Mr. SIETSEMA: You're welcome, it's all in the line of duty. I think I deserve hardship paychecks now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I think so. I think so.

Mr. SIETSEMA: The Double Down...

MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. SIETSEMA: ...feels like a paperweight in the hands. And I think it should come with a gallon of water. I mean, you know, I have nothing against fast food. I love Mickey D's French fries, I like Popeye's chicken and biscuits, but this is really a travesty. There's nothing enjoyable about eating this. You know, it's messy, it oozes out, you know, like I said, I think I was up all night drinking water.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I'm sorry.

Mr. SIETSEMA: No, that's fine.

MARTIN: I feel bad now. Well, tell us about it, though, was it at least tasty?

Mr. SIETSEMA: You know, it's a little primal. You're eating it without utensils and your mouth floods with cheese and bacon fat and there's mayonnaise sauce and fat carries flavor. You know, I think the appeal here is there's this kind of bravado associated with the Double Down or a pancake stacker. You know, I can eat the whole thing. This is so bad. It's sort of like a teenager sneaking a cigarette or a beer. There's this guilty wicked pleasure associated with it. Like I climbed this mountain. I'm eating cheesecake on my pancakes. But like I said, there's nothing really enjoyable about eating this other than the fact that you accomplished it. It's sort of a poor man's Everest.

MARTIN: But you're saying that some high end restaurants are doing this too. Like, I'm familiar with some steakhouses, for example, have this challenge if you can eat a really ginormous steak, they'll give it to you for free.

Mr. SIETSEMA: It's free. Right. Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIETSEMA: What was it Miss Piggy's advice? Never eat anything bigger than your head.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIETSEMA: You know, I think that's true of restaurants, too. You know, but as I said earlier, people have come to expect this. And restaurants are in the business of hospitality, you know. It's considered generous to give you tomorrow's lunch along with tonight's dinner.

MARTIN: Are some of the other restaurants responding to this, though? Do you feel that there's kind of an upward pressure on portion size in general? When fast food does one thing, do other food outlets feel a need to compete?

Mr. SIETSEMA: You know, right after Double Down came out, we did see IHOP come out with this outrageous, you know, pancake construction. I understand it's going to be available until June 20th, so that kind of covers celebrations like Mother's Day and graduation and Father's Day. So you can, you know, fatten up mom, dad, and the graduate...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIETSEMA: ...all before the end of June.

MARTIN: All before the end of June.

Mr. SIETSEMA: You know, so that's a special occasion thing. Look, if these things weren't popular, they wouldn't keep them on the menu. I'd just like to see the focus groups on these kind of monstrous portions.

MARTIN: If this is your thing, if this is your cup of tea - is there a way to participate in this without burning up your entire caloric intake for the day in one sandwich?

Mr. SIETSEMA: Well, you know what I think, I was looking at the menus, actually, and at KFC, for instance, you can get a roasted chicken, Caesar salad, or you can - side dishes like corn on the cob or green beans. You dont have to buy a bucket of something fried. Maybe just, you know, a two-piece meal instead of, you know, something outrageous. Or if youre going to try a Double Down, what you should probably do is split it with, oh, four people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. Four people?

Mr. SIETSEMA: It's huge. I got, you know, I took three bites and I'm just, wow, this is a lot. It's a lot of grease, a lot of fat, and lot of sort of fake factory flavor involved. It was just - it was pretty unappealing.

MARTIN: So we really do owe you one for this.

Mr. SIETSEMA: I'm happy to do it.

MARTIN: We appreciate it. And finally, can I just ask you this? You eat for a living.

Mr. SIETSEMA: I do.

MARTIN: And you have to eat a lot. In fact, many times when people are trying to encourage people to control their - one of the things they'll encourage people to do is eat at home where they can control portions size and the ingredients. You have to go out for a living. And of course you love it, but what do you do to control your weight? And I have - I'm not going to reveal your appearance because I know you want to keep that a little private.

Mr. SIETSEMA: That's so sweet of you.

MARTIN: But I have seen you and youre actually quite trim.

Mr. SIETSEMA: Well, one thing...

MARTIN: If you dont mind my saying. So what do you do?

Mr. SIETSEMA: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. On thing I do do, I always take the stairs instead of the elevator; I try to, unless I'm carrying a case of wine or something like that. I try to exercise on a regular basis. I probably eat, because I'm sharing my food with companions at the table, I tend to eat a quarter of everything. It actually - a restaurant critic's regiment like that is pretty good because youre sharing food with everyone. Youre not dallying over a whole entre and mindlessly eating. And finally, bringing up salt again, I often salt desserts after two or three bites so I dont mindlessly fork into them as the dinner is winding down.

MARTIN: What? You mean you pour salt on your food?

Mr. SIETSEMA: Yeah, I salt desserts. I salt desserts so I stop eating them. So I use salt as a weapon.

MARTIN: You know, you could bring it over here to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIETSEMA: You can have my cheesecake pancakes.

MARTIN: Well, thank you.

Tom Sietsema is a food critic for the Washington Post. He joined us from his offices there, and still probably recovering from last night's food, Double Down experience.

Tom Sietsema, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. SIETSEMA: Thank you for having me.

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