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Valerie Phillips: Is Paula Deen using her diabetes to cash in?

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 31 2012 4:30 p.m. MST

Why are people so angry that Paula Deen has Type 2 diabetes? I don't remember such a big reaction over a celebrity's outing of a disease since Rock Hudson announced that he was dying of AIDS, or maybe Magic Johnson's revelation that he was HIV positive.

When people found out actor Michael J. Fox had Parkinson's disease, there was a rush of support and sympathy. But in this case, angry diabetics are calling the Food Network's Queen of Southern Cuisine a hypocrite.

Deen has never claimed her Food Network show's cuisine — built on butter, bacon and mayo — is health food. When questioned about it over the years, she has always talked about "moderation."

But at the same time she revealed her Type II diabetes, she announced her ad campaign with diabetes drug-maker Novo Nordisk. From the public's point of view, she's cashing in on her illness by endorsing a drug, when she could instead become a role model for reformed eating habits.

Also, Deen was diagnosed with diabetes three years ago — but still kept cookin' up her Southern specialties such as fried chicken and Gooey Butter Cake on her show, "Paula's Best Dishes."

Did she wait until the ink was signed on a lucrative contract before going public?

The PR blunder seems pretty obvious. In fact, Paula Deen's publicist, Nancy Assuncao, reportedly quit because she disagreed with the drug endorsement. But Assuncao surely knew of Deen's diabetes within the past three years. Did it ever occur to her to advise Paula to start lightening up her food on the show in order to deflect a lot of future criticism?

Son Bobby Deen just launched a Food Network series, "Not My Mama's Meals," where he lightens up some of her famous dishes. Although it's a step in the right direction, it seems timed to capitalize on Paula's condition.

After the firestorm hit, Paula Deen announced that her family will donate a portion of the money from the Novo Nordisk contract to the American Diabetes Association. And there's been some positive talk that she is building awareness of the disease.

If you're wondering why Deen doesn't use this moment to market something healthy, like vegetables …… well, she's been there, done that. Last November, Paula Deen launched "Simply Fresh" side dishes. The fresh veggies came in microwavable bags, with her smiling face on the package. Unfortunately, these veggies were gussied up Paula-style. The broccoli had a creamy herb butter sauce, the green beans were coated with butter and bacon, and the vegetable medley swam in an asiago cheese sauce.

Sure, if all you got in the bag was plain vegetables, what would be the point in paying $3.99 for a bag with four servings? But drowning veggies in butter, cheese and bacon is nothing new. It would have shown a lot more innovation to punch up the flavor with herbs, or a low-fat sauce.

The Physicians for Responsible Medicine (a non-profit group that advocates a vegan diet) sent Deen a letter inviting her to try its noncommercial 21-Day Kickstart program, featuring lowfat vegan cuisine. The group sent out a press release claiming that their low-fat vegan diet controls blood glucose more effectively than a standard diabetes diet, and may be more effective than diabetes drugs.

I've never met Paula Deen, but her folksy charm seems sincere. I've never heard anything negative about her from my food journalist friends who have had plenty to say about the divas they've dealt with.

And I don't blame my personal weight issues on Deen's penchant for gooey butter cakes and Southern fried chicken. Plenty of other celebrity chefs offer up high-fat recipes. "Barefoot Contessa" Ina Garten's Brownie Pudding contains a half-pound of butter, split among just six servings. And I can't sit through an episode of Guy Fierri's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" without the feeling that my arteries are hardening.

Deen is certainly not the first TV cook to capitalize on products and endorsements. But she's taken it to a new level. Although her celebrity status came later in her life, she's made up for lost time. She's not only come out with cookbooks and magazines, but day planners, recipe cards and stationery. She's not only done a line of pots and pans, but a set of kids' cooking utensils. She not only published her own biography, but husband Michael Groover did "My Delicious Life With Paula Deen" as well.

Fans can buy Paula Deen-endorsed seasoning blends, coconut cake, pecan pies, kitchen equipment, gift tags, mattresses, furniture, rugs and mugs, or eat at a Paula Deen Buffet.

She's been a spokesperson for Philadelphia Cream Cheese, Smithfield Hams and B. Lloyds nuts.

And now, she can add diabetes drugs to the lucrative list.

My grandmother passed away from complications of diabetes when I was around 5 years old. One of my earliest memories was of grandma in her wheelchair, after she had lost her legs to the disease. I'm grateful that modern medicine has developed better drugs so that diabetes isn't a death sentence.

But, we've also learned a lot about the influence of diet since then, and it seems that healthier food should come first.

Valerie Phillips is the former Deseret News food editor. She blogs at www.chewandchat.blogspot.com.

Email: vphillips@desnews.com

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