How City Hall Is Making General Tso’s Chicken a Little Healthier

Sometimes the nanny state works.

Now with less sodium. |

Now with less sodium. |

There are more than 400 Chinese takeout joints in Philadelphia. That’s a lot. More than all the chain restaurants in the city combined, in fact. And while many of them serve delicious, cheap food, much of it is also wildly unhealthy.

So a year-and-a-half ago, Philadelphia’s Department of Health set off on a well-intentioned but seemingly doomed attempt to change that. How? By convincing the owners of takeout joints to cook lower-sodium versions of three Chinese American standards: chicken lo mein, shrimp with broccoli and General Tso’s chicken. Good luck with that, right?

Well, it’s actually worked, according to a new report from City Lab. An impressive 221 takeout joints signed up for the program, which included low-sodium cooking classes and consults with health experts. And, what do you know, a recent food analysis of the three pilot dishes from a sampling of the participating restaurants found notable sodium reductions. There was 34 percent less salt in the shrimp and broccoli, 30 percent less salt in the lo mein and 13 percent less salt in the General Tso’s chicken. Writes City Lab:

The initiative more than doubled its original sodium reduction goal in the two initial target dishes, and even the dish that wasn’t included in the original intervention [that was the General Tso’s] had less salt two years after the training. (All three dishes now have sodium content below daily dietary guidelines, though they still exceed guidelines for a single meal.) … the project’s organizers are particularly cheered by the additional 10 percent drop in sodium content between 2013 and 2014. 

Taste tests, conducted at nine participating restaurants with 324 tasters, found that customers were generally happy with the changes. The vast majority said they would purchase the reduced-salt dishes.

No doubt some readers are wondering about now: What business is it of City Hall’s how much sodium is in my lo mein? There’s no getting around the fact that this is pretty classic nanny state-ism, which has been a hallmark of Mayor Nutter’s administration.

But this is an entirely voluntary program. And in Philadelphia, Chinese takeout restaurants are heavily concentrated in low-income minority neighborhoods where obesity and heart disease are endemic and food options are scarce.

More broadly, the city’s health department has clearly improved the health of Philadelphians over these last seven years. The infant mortality rate is at its lowest level in decades. Youth smoking has declined by 30 percent since Nutter took office, and adult smoking is down by almost 15 percent. The immunization rate is higher and childhood obesity is down 4.7 percent. All that seems worth a little bit of nannying.