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KFC to slash menu's use of trans fat

The move by the chicken chain could put pressure on its fast-food rivals, especially McDonald's.

October 31, 2006|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

The maker of Kentucky Fried Chicken announced Monday that it would deep-fry most of its menu items without trans fat, saying it had found a soybean oil that could produce more-healthful fare while maintaining the taste long promoted as "finger lickin' good."

KFC Corp.'s menu changes, scheduled to be phased in by next April, won praise from health advocates, who said it would force other major fast-food purveyors, such as McDonald's Corp., to make similar moves.

KFC is changing its cooking oil at a time when customers as well as health advocates are pressuring the food industry to reduce or eliminate the use of trans fatty acids, or trans fat. There is a broad scientific consensus that partially hydrogenated oils, of which trans fat is a component, contribute to high cholesterol, heart disease and diabetes.

New York, Chicago and other cities are considering prohibiting the use of such oils by restaurants. The Food and Drug Administration recently began requiring labels on packaged food to list trans fat content.

"Trans fat has become box-office poison in the food world. It is the guest you really want to leave," said Keith Ayoob, director of the nutrition clinic at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

Wendy's International Inc. said in June that it would begin cooking its French fries and breaded chicken items with oil free of trans fat. Makers of the Frito-Lay and Crisco brands offer products without trans fat.

But the change by KFC, one of the nation's largest sellers of fried foods, marks a watershed for the movement to get trans fat out of food, said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington.

In June the nonprofit center joined a lawsuit in District of Columbia Superior Court seeking to end KFC's use of partially hydrogenated oil in fried chicken and other dishes. But the group withdrew from the suit after learning of KFC's change.

"This is going to burnish KFC's public image and send a signal to the rest of the industry that trans fat is on its way out," Jacobson said. "KFC has shown that switching to trans-fat-free oils is a no-brainer for fried foods."

KFC's move will put pressure on McDonald's to do the same, David S. Palmer, a UBS Investment Research analyst, wrote in a report to investors. He said McDonald's French fries were among the biggest contributors of trans fat to the U.S. diet.

"While McDonald's could argue that it would be an unreasonable strain on its business to do this reformulation, this argument becomes difficult to defend when other major packaged food and restaurant companies are doing it," Palmer said.

The nation's largest burger chain promised to cut its use of trans fat four years ago, but the conversion has been hampered by issues of taste and supply.

"Our customers trust McDonald's to do the right thing and expect us to get it right for them, and that is what we are doing," spokesman William Whitman said in a statement. He noted that the company, based in Oak Brook, Ill., had reduced trans fats in Chicken McNuggets and other menu offerings.

With the switch, KFC has a leg up in the cities threatening to regulate trans fat, said KFC President Gregg Dedrick.

"This is going to be a great competitive advantage for us," he said in announcing the changes Monday.

"We are not talking about just a side item," Dedrick said, noting that in changing the way KFC cooks 65 offerings, or 80% of its menu, the company is making a crucial business move to protect its brand.

Trans fat, however, will still be found in KFC's biscuits, macaroni and cheese and baked goods, for which the company has not yet found adequate substitutes for trans fat, he said.

KFC's sister companies, the Pizza Hut and Taco Bell chains, are planning similar changes, Dedrick said. The three are units of Louisville, Ky.-based Yum Brands Inc.

Partially hydrogenated oils are used extensively in the restaurant business because they have a long shelf life. They are well suited for cooking the type of crispy, crunchy foods that are the life blood of KFC and other fast-food chains.

Trans fat, which nutritionists say people should avoid because of its health effects, is found in abundance in many crackers, chips, cookies and baked goods that require a solid fat. But fast food has come under particular scrutiny.

On the KFC menu being overhauled, one extra-crispy breast contains 4.5 grams of trans fat. A large order of popcorn chicken has 7 grams, and KFC's pot pie contains 14 grams.

The move announced Monday marks a reversal in policy for KFC, which had long defended its menu.

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