ALEX COHEN, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
And I'm Madeleine Brand.
Hey, Alex. Guess what? Cupcakes aren't good for you. Did you know that?
COHEN: Wait a minute. You mean that thing I read that said if you had a Diet Coke and a cupcake they cancel each other out calorically isn't true?
BRAND: I know. Crazy.
BRAND: I know. But listen to this. Everyone knows that. But really, just how not good are they? That's a question that drives a guy who calls himself the Diet Detective. He wants to find out as much information as he can about all the foods we eat - the calories, the fat, everything in there.
And NPR's Mike Pesca found out this guy is willing to go to some great lengths to learn more.
MIKE PESCA: For the first 30 years of his life, Charles Stuart Platkin looked every bit the son of the Long Island ice cream shop owner that he was - a squishy dollop of vanilla soft-serve dripping off the cone. So today, when a trim, healthy 44-year-old Platkin stands outside the Crumbs Bakery in midtown Manhattan, he's something like the evangelist on Bourbon Street; only his sandwich board doesn't read the wages of sin is death. It's more like the wages of dessert is eight miles on the treadmill.
Platkin never touches the sweet stuff. And he believes others might not either if they only knew exactly what they were eating. But there is no way of knowing because gourmet bakeries serve up an enigma wrapped in a mystery stuffed with creamy goodness.
You've been wanting to do this for a while - to check out the caloric content of some of the upscale cupcakes, right?
Mr. CHARLES STUART PLATKIN (Public Health Advocate, Dietdetective.com): Yes, exactly. I thought that it was really interesting. It's becoming certainly a trend in New York City. And I think it would be helpful for people to know, you know, what they are consuming and make them more aware of it.
PESCA: All right. Let's check it out.
Inside Crumbs is a cupcake-acopia. Who thinks of all these flavors? You picture late-night brainstorming sessions among Willy Wonka and a half dozen Oompa-Loompas all hopped up on snozzberries. Platkin is a little shocked.
Mr. PLATKIN: Okay, we got Blackout, Coconut, Boston Cream, Cappuccino. Oh, there's a Candy Cupcake. I wonder, that's probably one to look at. And you have the Caramel Chew. Wow. Do you have any whole wheat?
PESCA: No. To their credit, Crumbs does not have whole wheat. And somehow Platkin does not blow his cover as a nutritionist. Today we're not here to gather cupcakes for eating. These treats are headed to a lab in Queens for analysis. Platkin's mission is for all food purveyors, not just fast-food restaurants, to provide full nutritional information.
Mr. PLATKIN: We're able to see on the menu the pricing, okay, because it's important. It's our financial budget. However, you don't get to see the calories, which is our caloric budget - we have a daily caloric budget. Shouldn't we have that opportunity?
PESCA: Yes. Platkin answers. That's why he writes a newspaper column, runs a diet detective blog and has authored five books. Platkin's mission is to hound big chains like Starbucks for the breakdowns of their lattes. He'll constantly call Birds Eye in an attempt to figure out how their pouches keep vegetables so fresh.
And he'll also do the fieldwork himself. It turns out that today's cupcake excursion, next stop Magnolia Bakery, is nothing compared to the assignment Platkin accepted for New York magazine. Platkin wanted to know the exact nutritional breakdown of a meal at chef Thomas Keller's Per Se, where the price per head is $250.
Mr. PLATKIN: It's a nine-course tasting menu. They don't do take-out, by the way. And they don't give you to-go or doggie bags. So the only way to it was to go there and bag the food.
PESCA: Factor in Per Se's famously engaged wait staff. To most diners, there are 17 or so attendants providing staggeringly attentive service. To Platkin and his co-conspirators, it was 34 unwelcomed eyes.
Mr. PLATKIN: We probably studied for, you know, 10, 15 hours. And then we would practice. We would practice taking the food without trying to make a scene and putting it into, you know, plastic containers, which - try it at home.
PESCA: The day of the big score, Platkin, his wife, and a demolitions expert - okay, his friend, Paul - got into character. They adopted the personas of clueless tourists so as to provide a cover for why they were acting so nervous and clumsy. They asked for extra plates and ordered extraneous beverages to busy the wait staff. The first dish hit to table. It was showtime.
Mr. PLATKIN: You know, my wife takes it and starts - pretends to put it in her mouth. I gave her the eye. And she drops it in. And I lid it and put it in. I'm like, oh, gosh, okay. One down. Then I realized that that wasn't even the first course. So I'm like, oh my goodness, nine more to go.
PESCA: And you're sweating bullets.
Mr. PLATKIN: And I'm - we're sweating and I'm getting a horrifying, you know, stomachache, a terrible stomachache.
PESCA: Now, if these were a movie scene, what would be the music playing in the background?
Mr. PLATKIN: Probably, you know, there would be that really high suspense music.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. PLATKIN: So the next course comes. I want to take the next container. And I looked for the lid, and I'm looking for the lid, and I'm trying to keep my composure. There's people walking all around me, and my hand - and I'm looking and there's no more lids.
PESCA: Backup plan. Baggies. They maneuvered, held their breaths. Course by course, a rhythm developed.
Mr. PLATKIN: She would take our full portion, put it on the front side plate between us. I would have my vegetable half-portion in front of hers on another side plate. And then she would take the side plate, take the baggie underneath the table and dump it, put it back on. And that would be the process.
PESCA: Somehow it worked. Per Se's cuisine was bagged, tagged and flagged as containing 2,400 calories with wine and the little chocolate desserts. It's equivalent to four Whoppers. The exercise equivalent, which is something Platkin is big on, is walking about 30 miles.
(Soundbite of bakery)
PESCA: As we stand outside the Magnolia Bakery, Platkin's five-star restaurant heist makes our little cupcake caper seem like taking candy from a baby, which Platkin has also done. But Platkin's giddy as customers line up to enter this cupcake emporium made famous on the TV show "Sex and the City."
So we're in line outside Magnolia. What are we looking for in here?
Mr. PLATKIN: I can only imagine what the ingredients are in this and how many - I wonder if there was - if I held up a sign that said you'd have to, you know, walk for five hours, if people would run away or they'd just run towards.
PESCA: We are allowed in and grab a couple of Magnolia's cupcakes, fewer flavors than Crumbs and smaller portion size. We take the cake as it were and head on to the last stop in our postprandial perambulations, the corner market.
So what do you see from that Hostess cupcake?
Mr. PLATKIN: I see the ingredients barely fits on the package.
PESCA: Oh, yeah. That's true. Very small print.
Mr. PLATKIN: Look at this. This is just the ingredients right here.
PESCA: Yeah. How many calories does it say? I hope...
Mr. PLATKIN: All right. So two cakes, 340 calories.
PESCA: Oh, so two cakes for 340.
Mr. PLATKIN: Three hundred forty, yeah.
PESCA: There are 170 calories in it.
Mr. PLATKIN: You think that's bargain, huh?
PESCA: I don't know. I mean, they're cupcakes.
This entire time with Platkin, I've come to admire his tenacity and to see his overall point. Why should city law require only McDonald's to publicize nutritional information when the people voting for the laws eat at places that wouldn't think of putting caloric content on menus? But there is a bit of puritanism to the whole affair. Even so, I have to admit, when the lab analysis comes back a few days later, it's shocking.
(Soundbite of music)
PESCA: Okay, it's a little surprising. That Hostess cupcake, gram for gram, is the least caloric and has the least amount of fat of all the cupcakes. The dreaded ogre, trans fat, it's the same in the pre-packaged Hostess cupcake as in Crumbs' freshly baked version. And one Monster Cupcake from Crumbs clocks in at 780 calories. It's like three slices of pizza. So it turns out that a cupcake, by any other name, like Mr. 780 Calories, might not taste as sweet.
Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.
BRAND: You really want to know more about how many calories and whatever else are in your cupcakes? Go to our Web site, npr.org.