19
Apr
10

Begging the question: you’re doing it…

…pretty well, actually.

(Subtitle: OH NATE SILVER NO!)

I guess we’re still on about the goddamn KFC Double Down.

(Hat tip: Austin Frakt‘s shared items.)

Silver starts out reasonably enough:

KFC’s Double Down Sandwich, an in-your-face collection of bacon, cheese and something called Colonel’s Sauce betwixt two fried chicken “buns”, is making waves for its unapologetic gluttony, compelling reviews out of everyone from the New York Times’s Sam Sifton to the Onion’s Nathan Rabin. But is it really the caloric monstrosity that it appears?

Hey, maybe he’s taking a sober second look at the anticorporate hysteria surrounding what appears to be the first mass-marketed meatwich.  “Unapologetic gluttony” doesn’t sound all that good, but what the hell.  Let’s roll on and see what ol’ Nate does with his keenly-honed statistical mind:

[L]et’s start with the Double Down’s calorie count: 540 calories for the crispy “Original Recipe” version and 460 for a grilled variant. Those seem like big numbers, but by fast food standards, they’re pretty mild: the Burger King Chicken Tendercrisp weighs in at 800 calories, for instance, and Jack-in-the-Box’s Ranch Chicken Club will set you back 700. Calorie counts for burgers are even higher: 1,320 for a Hardee’s Monster Thickburger, and 1,350 for a Wendy’s Triple Baconator. Even the humble Big Mac, a lightweight by modern standards, contains 540 calories, exactly the same number as the Double Down.

Oops.  That doesn’t fit the narrative.

But calorie counts are overrated. We all need to eat, to the tune of about 2,000 calories per day for a healthy adult. It’s not the calories so much as what you do with them.

Oooh!  Oooh! He’s gonna talk about glycemic load and lipogenesis and the difference between dietary cholesterol and serum cholesterol!  I was wrong: Nate Silver really is too smart to fall into the hackeneyed tropes of  the diet industry from twenty years ago.  We’re gonna get some real nutrition on!

Are you getting a lot of fat, cholesterol, and sodium (bad)? Or lots of fiber and vitamins instead?

Notice how Silver has reduced a huge set of interconnected and not-at-all-resolved arguments to a single word: “(bad)”.  This is where he begs the question: he cherry-picks a set of three ingredients-list bullet points that match the Double Down’s biggest numbers on the “pct. daily intake” side of the scale, and takes as an axiom that they’re bad for you.

And then he tells us that dietary fibre and vitamins are macronutrients.  Holy fucking shit, man.

Even so, Nate’s having a tough time getting the Double Down out into the land of “unhealthiest sandwich ever”.  Calories didn’t work, and it’s for damn sure that established metrics (like glycemic load) with real science behind them aren’t going to help his cause, so he just makes shit up.

I’ve created an index based on the amount of fat, sodium and cholesterol that the Double Down and a variety of comparable sandwiches contain as a portion of the USDA daily allowance. (In the fat category, saturated fats are counted double and trans-fats are counted triple.) The index is scaled such that the Original Recipe version of the sandwich receives a score of 1.00, a measure of gluttony that will hereafter be known as The Double Down (DD).

Well, I like indices that are normalized against a baseline value.  I’m not sure why saturated fats count twice as much as unsaturated fats, or why vaccenic acid is considered even more awful than bacon grease, but we’re obviously in the land of explicitly ideological fiction (grep the page for that term; it’s a good discussion.  Also: OH NATE SILVER NO!).  Here’s how that plots out for various fast food items:

Chart from FiveThirtyEight.com

Even with the metric itself stacked against it, the KFC Double Down comes out as two-thirds as “unhealthy” (that’s gonna have to go in scare quotes) as a Panera fucking chicken sandwich.  Mayday, mayday, we have lost contact with the narrative.  Silver tries desperately to steer his analysis back towards its preordained conclusion:

All of those products, however, contain more — often substantially more — calories than does the Double Down. They have lots (and lots and lots) of bad stuff, but some good stuff like protein, iron and fiber as well. Their calories aren’t quite so empty, and they damned well ought to leave you full.

Okay, since Silver’s original argument was based on the Double Down’s calories-to-“bad stuff” ratio, it’s reasonable to normalize by calorie count.  But, uh, suggesting that the Double Down lacks protein and iron?  How fucking dumb does he think we are?  (Note also that the Double Down gets nearly all of its calorie count from fat, which scores high on the “leave you full” scale.  It’s particularly disingenuous for Silver to suggest otherwise.)

So when we normalize all of these “bad-stuff” scales by kcal — scale each one by kcal/540 — we finally get the graph for which Silver’s been torturing statistics:

Chart, again, from FiveThirtyEight.com

Victory at last!

I’ll take Nate’s triumphant conclusion apart, just for giggles:

So, is the Double Down the most gluttonous fast food sandwich ever created? It depends on how you measure it.

In this case, we’ve decided that only the proportion of fat, sodium, and cholesterol to USDA guidelines, scaled by kcal, indicates unhealthiness.  Sugar, starch, methylmercury, heroin, and cat urine don’t matter a good goddamn.  But saturated fat is twice as unhealthy as unsaturated, and trans fats are thrice as bad.  Arbitrary?  Just a little.

At the margins, consuming one Double Down almost certainly isn’t as bad for you as a Triple Baconator, a Thickburger, or even a fully-loaded Chipotle burrito.

Oh, thank goodness!

But while those products should, in theory, fill you up for at least half the day, the Double Down might leave you hankering for seconds.

Food metabolism FAIL.  How full you feel after eating something is only glancingly related to how many calories that “something” has, as witnessed by the fact that people can drink Coke pretty much non-stop, but few can finish a 32-ounce steak in one sitting.  And speaking of metered caloric intake, getting half your calories in one sitting is a great way to spike your blood sugar and get fat and diabetic — but that’s precisely how Silver excuses the Triple Baconator and &c.

It’s a high bar to clear, but it’s the closest thing to pure junk food of any “sandwich” being marketed today.

So sayeth the ag-industry lobbyists who wrote the USDA nutritional guidelies.  Oops, I made a typo.

Now for the educational content: If you’re stuck outside the Double Down market like I am, or if you just want the satisfaction of making a meatwich yourself, the best meat-slabs I’ve found are sandwich steaks and chicken tenders; the latter need to be pounded flat to make good “buns”.  (Chicken breasts would seem to work well, but tend to be too dry unless you brine them — which explains the Grilled DD’s sodium numbers — and I’m far too lazy to brine anything.)  Use aged cheddar to glue everything together: the cheese has to compete with the bacon for flavour.  (Naturally, you should use the best bacon you can possibly find, since the bacon’s the star of the show.)  I like a thick slice of tomato in the middle, but then again, I’ll seize at any excuse to play with my kitchen knives.  Fry the bacon first, then fry the meat-slabs in the bacon fat while you cut up the other shit.

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11 Responses to “Begging the question: you’re doing it…”


  1. 1 Not Sure
    April 19, 2010 at 17:52

    “It’s a high bar to clear, but it’s the closest thing to pure junk food of any “sandwich” being marketed today.”

    Even assuming the truth of that claim… so fucking what? Nobody is making people eat them.

  2. April 19, 2010 at 19:37

    I love his “adjusted” scores. The grilled version is more “unhealthy” because it has less calories, and the same amount of everything else. That is totally and utterly idiotic. (Unless you’re in a situation where you want maximum calories for minimum expense and difficultly, but most westerners have the opposite problem)

    • April 19, 2010 at 21:00

      His theory is that you should maximize the ratio of calories to “bad stuff” — because you’re going to eat, say, 2000kcal of something, and 2000kcal of Double Downs has more “bad stuff” than 2000kcal of Baconators.

      And yes, it’s utterly idiotic. You might choose a Double Down and a salad for the same caloric “cost” as a Baconator — but he assumes you won’t. (A 500kcal meatwich and a broccoli/tomato salad would come pretty close to maxing out my “healthy” scale for a 3000kcal/day metabolism.) I need to elaborate on that point.

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