Unless you've been living under a rock all of you in Readerland must be familiar with the "Chik-fil-a problem" after the CEO admitted that he is opposed to same-sex unions and apparently money has been donated by his company groups that support his agenda. Since SkepticRD is always fascinated with the rationale for why people eat what they do beyond our basic biological needs, and I cope with angry internet vitriol by being extra nerdy, I decided to write a post focusing on the many internet denizens who have been commenting about not eating there anyway because "the food is bad and bad for you."
Now "the food is bad" is something that SkepticRD cannot speak too. SkepticRD was a vegetarian for many years (that's another blog post) and since, as I've shared before, since I have problems w/various food intolerances I typically stay out of places where my food choices are even more limited. The "food is bad for you" can mean a lot of different things depending on who you are talking to. Let's go over some of the common claims and see where the evidence takes us, shall we?
1) Claim #1—Chik-fil-a uses high fructose corn syrup. I've already addressed the concerns regarding HFCS here. Remember though, the main issue is excess sugar from any source is a problem when it comes to controlling your calorie intake and your blood glucose if you are diabetic/pre-diabetic. If you look at the nutrition information and ingredients for a Chicken Sandwich, for example, you will find that yes, HFCS is listed as one of the ingredients. But, you will also find that pretty much every other popular fast food place uses HFCS as well (Link). So, if you are trying to avoid excess sugar, you probably want to avoid eating the sandwiches, the salad dressings, and non-diet beverages at Chick-fil-a, but you will want to avoid just about every other fast food place as well.
2) Claim #2—Chik-fil-a uses monosodium glutamate (MSG) in their foods. Sure enough, a quick perusal through the nutrition info on the website indicates this is true. MSG is added to foods to increase the "umami" taste, best described as a savory taste sensation. Unfortunately, it is also listed as the "cause" of everything from migraines to indigestion to generalized weakness. When we follow the science, however, you can find several peer reviewed, double-blind studies that demonstrate that reactions to MSG have no statistical difference to those of a placebo. This means it is highly unlikely that MSG can be responsible for the physical symptoms. Now, I'm there will be plenty of people who will claim that their mother's veteraniarian's brother's hairdresser's sister (who happens to be named Jenny Mcarthy, ahem) accidently ate something that had MSG and suffered headaches, upset stomach, low resale value on their home, etc. If so you might want to remind them that glutamate/glutamic acid is also found in tomatoes, meats, dairy, fish, and eggs and that it's not usually transported through the blood/brain barrier. You might also want to remind them that glutamic acid plays an important role in proper brain function, especially when it comes to memory. Now, might large doses of glutamic acid beyond what we would normally get in food cause problems? Possibly, but there is no actual evidence that it's a problem. (1, 2, 3, 4). So, since the evidence for MSG being a problem is weak, it's not a good reason to avoid Chik-fil-a or any other restaurant that might use it.
3) Claim #3. Chik-fil-a has fried food which is bad for you. Now we are going to go down a convoluted path, so please stay with me. Whenever starches, like waffle-fries are deep fried (also roasted or baked) a chemical called acrylamide is formed. Meats form very little of this chemical when fried/roasted/baked but the batter around it will form it. This chemical has been found to be neurotoxic at high levels in humans, but the data showing carcinogenic or neurotoxic effects at the lower levels found in founds is mixed (Link). Another concern is that the oil used by Chik-fil-a, and well, other fast food places, is often a heat processed oil, meaning that it’s been refined, bleached, and deodorized in a process that uses the chemical hexane. Once again, this chemical has been found to be neurotoxic at high levels, but it is unlikely that you will get anywhere near that exposure from food (Link). A third concern is that oils heated to the temperature required for deep frying become oxidized, and this might pose a risk for atherosclerosis in humans. (Link). So, there is very little evidence so far that the fried food is neurotoxic or carcinogenic, but the evidence for influencing heart disease is a bit more compelling.
4) Claim #4: Chik-fil-a uses refined carbohydrates. Typically if you are eating too much carbohydrate from any source, refined or otherwise, you will find it much easier to take in extra calories (e.g. 1 slice of bread can be 100 or more calories) and if you have diabetes or pre-diabetes it can be very easy to exceed your meal time or daily requirement. The insulin-resistant SkepticRD (thank you genetics!) usually has to stay at 30 or less grams of carbohydrate at a meal, so one fried chicken sandwich would put me over the limit. Refined carbohydrates are thought to be more problematic because they are usually lacking in fiber, iron, and B vitamins and may contribute to a lack of "feeling full" at meals and possibly a sharper increase in blood sugar levels. (Link). There are also some schools of thought that argue that our current grain consumption period may be instrumental in digestive disorders and other chronic diseases as grains were introduced relatively recently into the human diet from an evolutionary perspective (Link). So, there is some more compelling evidence for people to limit their carbohydrate intake, particularly from processed grains.
So is "the food at Chik-fil-a is bad for you" have any basis in evidence? The statements above would indicate that regular consumption of it, assuming that regular consumption includes the fried items and sandwiches, would influence weight gain, poor blood glucose control, and increase your risk for atherosclerosis. But you could also level this claim at pretty much any fast food restaurant.
SkepticRD is left with this question: "If you have evidence that regular consumption of a particular product is unhealthy for you and most likely your family, and yet you vow to consume it regularly to forward or support your particular belief system or political agenda, how does this in anyway help form a healthy country, family, or even individuals?" If anyone has any evidence to support the premise that your sickness will somehow influence wellness in others, I would very much be interested in hearing it.
P.S. Because I am a Humanist, I feel that I should state that I would not give my dollars to an organization that gives their money to certified hate groups. Should they be silenced or not allowed to have a business? No. I also want to state that I had similar thoughts about risking our health in support of a company when Oreos blew up the internet. If anyone would like me to deconstruct Oreos, I would be happy to. 'Cause SkepticRD is a nerd like that.