KFC phasing out trans fats in cooking for popular items

NEW YORK (AP) – KFC said Monday it is phasing out trans fats in cooking its Original Recipe and Extra Crispy fried chicken, Potato Wedges and other menu items, but hasn’t found a good alternative yet for its biscuits.

Health experts say trans fats raise levels of artery-clogging cholesterol and contribute to heart disease.

The restaurant chain said it will start using zero trans fat soybean oil systemwide in the United States with the rollout expected to be completed by April 2007. KFC said many of its approximately 5,500 restaurants already have switched.

KFC President Gregg Dedrick said there would be no change in the taste of the chicken and other food items.

“There is no compromise,” he said at a Manhattan news conference. “Nothing is more important to us than the quality of our food and preserving the terrific taste of our product.”

Crispy Strips, Wings, Boneless Wings, Buffalo and Crispy Snacker Sandwiches, Popcorn Chicken and Twisters also are part of the menu change.

But Dedrick said some products including biscuits will still be made with trans fat while KFC keeps looking for alternatives.

The announcement came just ahead of a New York City Board of Health public hearing on a plan to make New York the first U.S. city to ban restaurants from serving food containing artificial trans fats.

The change at KFC applies only to U.S. restaurants for now, Dedrick said. He said the company was trying to find replacement oils for its overseas restaurants. He added that KFC outlets in some countries already use trans fat-free oils, but he would not say which countries.

Artificial trans fat is so common that the average American eats 4.7 pounds of it a year, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

The switch was applauded by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which sued the Louisville, Ky.-based KFC in June over the trans fat content of its chicken.

KFC isn’t the only business preparing for a trans-fat-free future.

Wendy’s International Inc., the burger restaurant chain company, has already switched to a zero-trans fat oil. Fast-food leader McDonald’s Corp. had announced that it intended to do so as well in 2003, but has yet to follow through.

At the Board of Health hearing, restaurant industry representatives said they would need time to implement the proposed ban on artificial trans fat and questioned whether there is enough U.S. supply of alternative oils to make up for the product if it is banned.

If New York City approves banning food with artificial trans fats, it would only affect city restaurants, not grocery stores. But experts said the city’s foodservice industry is so large, any change in its rules is likely to ripple nationwide.

“It’s huge. It’s going to be the trendsetter for the entire country,” said Suzanne Vieira, director of the culinary nutrition program at Johnson ‘ Wales University in Providence, R.I., where students are experimenting with substitute oils and shortenings.

New York’s thousands of independently owned restaurants are beginning to look for ways to make changes too _ not all happily.

Richard Lipsky, a spokesman for the Neighborhood Retail Alliance, said many eatery owners rely on ingredients prepared elsewhere, and aren’t always aware whether the foods they sell contain trans fats.

Invented in the early 1900s, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil was initially believed to be a healthy substitute for natural fats like butter or lard. It was also cheaper, performed better under high heat and had a longer shelf life.

Today, the oil is used as a shortening in baked goods like cookies, crackers and doughnuts, as well as in deep frying.

Ironically, many big fast food companies only became dependent on hydrogenated oil a decade and a half ago when they were pressured by health groups to do something about saturated fat.

McDonald’s emptied its french fryers of beef tallow in 1990 and filled them with what was then thought to be “heart healthy” partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.

“They did so in all innocence, trying to do the right thing,” said Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Everybody thought it was safe. We thought it was safe.”

Some restaurants were still completing the changeover when the first major study appeared indicating that the hydrogenated oils were just as bad for you, if not worse.

When eaten, trans fats significantly raise the level of so-called “bad” cholesterol in the blood, clogging arteries and causing heart disease. Researchers at Harvard’s School of Public Health estimated that trans fats contribute to 30,000 U.S. deaths a year.

“This is something we’d like to dismiss from our food supply,” said Dr. Robert H. Eckel, immediate past president of the American Heart Association.

KFC is part of Yum Brands Inc., which also owns the Taco Bell and Pizza Hut chains.

Yum shares rose 84 cents to $59.80 in afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange, near the upper end of their 52-week range of $44.21 to $61.84.