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Are Chinese Restaurant Foods Healthy?

by Yao-Wen Huang

Chinese Restaurant General Information

Spring Volume: 1996 Issue: 3(1) page(s): 6 and 7


Most Americans eat some Chinese foods in or ordered from restaurants. This ethnic cuisine is generally regarded as healthy, however, little data is available on its nutrient composition as made and consumed in the United States. Therefore, we examined the nutrient profiles of selected popular Chinese restaurant foods in the laboratories of the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of Georgia in Athens.

To do so, we purchased six popular items (House Fried Rice, Beef with Broccoli, General Tsao's Chicken, Vegetables with Tofu, Kung-Bao Shrimp and Kung-Bao Chicken) from eighteen randomly selected Chinese restaurants in the metropolitan Atlanta area. Two randomly assigned entrees were ordered from this pool of eighteen restaurants. Therefore, six orders of each entree were selected from the eighteen restaurants. The packages of Chinese food came to our laboratory in paper boxes, plastic, or styrofoam take-out containers.

At the lab, the foods were transferred to a Waring blender, sauces allowed to free flow until the dripping stopped (in one minute of decanting). Each sample was homogenized and stored at -20 C until the analysis, using standard methods, was done for fat, protein, moisture, ash, mineral content, cholesterol, and fatty acids.

Results of our study showed that the weight of each order varied widely from one restaurant to another. Table 1 (printed in the hard copy of this issue) shows that an order of House Fried Rice ranged from just over 494 grams to 1,022 grams, while the samples of Kung-Bao Shrimp ranged from a little over 185 to just under 790 grams (that is from under half a pound to over a pound and a half).

Furthermore, one order of a Chinese restaurant entree should not be treated as one serving size when comparing them to commercial products; the serving sizes of most commercially frozen Chinese packaged entrees are between 255 to 283 grams (which is between 9 and 10 ounces); all but two of our thirty-six samples weighed more than that. Therefore, for our comparative study of nutritional quality of the foods we purchased from Chinese restaurants and take-out places to be realistic, we used the same serving size, expressed in unit weight, instead of using the whole order.

The proximate compositions for each of the six entrees are averaged and listed in Table 2 (which was printed in the hard copy of this issue). Each entree shows a different level of protein and fat. General Tsao's Chicken contained the highest level of protein and fat (almost 16% and 9%, respectively) with Kung-Bao Chicken showing a comparable amount of both nutrients. Protein and fat in Beef with Broccoli was modest (nearly 11% and just over 6%, respectively). Steamed rice, as expected, contains the least amount of fat, less than one percent (0.74%).

Thigh meat is normally used for dishes such as General Tsao's Chicken and Kung-Bao Chicken; this may have contributed to their higher levels of fat compared to the other dishes. The differences in proximate composition of each entree reflect the different ingredients that compose a dish. The meatier the dish, the higher the protein.

The cholesterol content, also shown in Table 2, differed from one dish to another, as well. There was no cholesterol in Vegetable with Tofu. Beef with Broccoli contained just over 16 milligrams per 100 grams of food, while House Fried Rice, General Tsao`s Chicken and Kung-Bao Chicken had just about 69, 54, and 37, respectively. The lower level of cholesterol in General Tsao's Chicken compared to Kung-Bao Chicken may be due to the cooking method of the respective dishes.

Sodium content ranged from 356 milligrams for each 100 grams for the Vegetable with Tofu dish to 546 milligrams per 100 grams for the Beef with Broccoli, also shown in Table 2. As to the amounts of other minerals, there were high amounts of potassium (K), calcium (Ca) and phosphorus (P) in these Chinese food items.

The fat contained in the six entrees varied. The percentage of mono-unsaturated fatty acid ranged from 24% for Kung-Bao Shrimp to 40% for Kung-Bao Chicken, the amounts of polyunsaturated fatty acids higher than that of mono-unsaturated and saturated fatty acids. The amount of saturated fat is much lower in items that have low amounts of total fat and the percent of unsaturated fatty acids higher than that of saturated fatty acids.

In order to compare Chinese restaurant food to other popular American food items, we have also listed popular consumer items in Table 2.

The calorie per unit weight of Chinese restaurant food is higher than frozen Chinese entrees from companies such as Healthy Choice and Lean Cuisine, but noticeably lower than the calories in hamburgers and pizza. Vegetable oil contributes most of the calories in Chinese restaurant food where approximately one-quarter of the calories are derived from fat. Just about half (49%) of calories in frozen Chinese entrees, hamburgers and pizza are derived from fat except for the Mandarin Chicken from Healthy Choice, where fat is only twenty percent of the calories.

One can see, in Table 3 (also printed in the hard copy of this issue), that when Chinese Restaurant entrees are consumed with equal or double portions of steamed rice as Chinese people would eat them, the nutritional quality becomes more favorable. Chinese restaurant food had about for to seven percent of its calories coming from saturated fat compared to around one-quarter of the saturated fat (17 to 28%) in pizza and hamburgers, respectively. In addition, frozen Chinese entrees are low in cholesterol. Also, sodium and cholesterol amounts are lower in Chinese restaurant food than they are in almost all hamburgers. Not only that, but hamburgers are customarily consumed with French fries and perhaps a milk shake. Pizza, on the other hand, is low in cholesterol but relatively high in sodium.

In conclusion, the results of this study indicate that the six Chinese restaurant entrees selected (and probably many, many others) can be regarded as healthy, based on their nutrient composition. Compared to hamburgers and pizza, the Chinese entrees are low in fat and in saturated fat and high in protein and in carbohydrate amounts. So, do not forget to eat your Chinese entrees with a good-sized portion of steamed white rice. That enhances their nutritional quality.
_____
Dr. Yao-Wen Huang is Associate Professor at the Center for Food Safety and Quality in the Department of Food Science and Technology, University of Georgia, Athens Georgia

                                                                                                                                                       
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