July 2, 2013 at 3:10 PM ET
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has named the "worst restaurant meal in America" -- they say it's Long John Silver's Big Catch, a $4.99 plate featuring a 7-8 ounce piece of fried haddock, hush puppies and the choice of a side. (The version CSPI tested had onion rings as the side.)
The meal is so big that Long John Silver's encourages patrons to post photos to its Facebook page showing the empty Big Catch container to prove they finished it.
The CSPI's lab tests showed 33 grams of trans fat in the Big Catch meal, which they say all comes from the restaurant's use of partially hydrogenated frying oil. The tests also showed 19 grams of saturated fat and 3,700 milligrams of sodium and 1,320 calories in the fast food fish meal.
Long John Silver's website doesn't include nutritional information for the fried haddock in the Big Catch meal. But according to the company, an order of battered onion rings contains seven grams of trans fat, five grams of saturated fat and 945 milligrams of sodium; a two-piece order of hushpuppies packs three grams of trans fat, two grams of saturated fat and 412 milligrams of sodium.
The health group says that the company understates the trans fat, saturated fat and sodium found in the hush puppies and onion rings. For example, the CSPI says its lab tests showed 19.5 grams of trans fat in the onion rings.
The CSPI visited three restaurants in the D.C. area, and purchased 12 samples of the fried haddock, seven orders of French fries, five orders of onion rings and 13 orders of hush puppies. The samples were sent for laboratory testing to Eurofins, a commercial bio-analytical testing company, executive director Michael Jacobson told TODAY.com.
On Tuesday afternoon, Long John Silver's, owned by LJS Partners, issued a statement on its website: "Long John Silver’s offers a variety of meal choices including baked fish and shrimp that can satisfy almost every diner’s dietary choices. We stand behind our published food data and will review any requests from CSPI that raise questions about our data."
Jacobson says the nutrition advocacy group will consider suing the restaurant chain if it continues to use partially hydrogenated oil in its deep-fryers, and if it continues to misrepresent the nutritional information in the side items.
For people eating 2,000 calories a day, the American Heart Association recommends consuming less than two grams of trans fat, 16 grams of saturated fat and 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day. Artificial trans fats, used in frying oils and processed foods, have been banned because of their link to heart disease.
Partially hydrogenated oil is a major source of trans fat, explains Madelyn Fernstrom, NBC News diet and health editor. It both raises LDL, or "bad," cholesterol and lowers HDL, or "good," cholesterol. "This was the opposite of when it was discovered, decades ago, when it was thought that chemically modifying vegetable fats to seem more like butter and other animal fats was a good thing," Fernstrom said via email. "Science has shown it to be worse than animal fats, on cholesterol measures. Many restaurants have gotten rid of this kind of cooking oil for this reason."
Fernstrom calls the Big Catch a "triple whammy" - three fried foods on one plate, each packed with unhealthy, artery-clogging fat.
"You don't need CSPI to tell you this meal is a nutritional nightmare and a horrible choice under any circumstances," she said.
But if you do end up at a fast food restaurant this holiday weekend, Fernstrom has some advice on making the best possible choices. First, always downsize to the smallest serving size, and whenever you can, choose baked or grilled over fried options.
At Long John Silver's, for example, an order of "Hold the Batter Cod" or "Hold the Batter Shrimp" each have zero grams of trans fat and saturated fat, and both items are closer to 100 calories, according to the nutritional information posted to the chain's website. And the menu does offer non-fried side items like seasoned green beans, rice or a baked potato, all of which have zero grams trans fat and low to no grams of saturated fat.
"Don't be fooled by health-food impostors like 'batter-fried fish,'" Fernstrom advises. "The batter and oil are health negatives, and if you want fish, choose baked or grilled. Most menus have baked options - or you can simply ask for it. If you like a fried option when out in a restaurant as a treat, pick one option. Fried fish? Get a salad and baked potato. Want hush puppies? Double up on the veggies and a choose a baked fish fillet."