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.
"All KFC products are safe to eat and meet or exceed all government regulations," the chain said in a statement in June when the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Washington law firm Heideman Nudelman & Kalik filed their suit. "We provide a variety of menu choices and provide nutrition information, including trans fat values, on our website and in our restaurants so consumers can make informed choices before they purchase our products."
But even as KFC was defending its menu, company researchers were trying to come up with an alternative cooking oil.
The hitch, Dedrick said, was to find a substitute that would not make KFC's chicken "any less than finger-lickin' good."
"People love the flavor of our food, but they want the trans fat out," he said.
Working with Monsanto Co., the giant chemical company that also is a major developer of plant seeds, KFC found that a so-called low-linolenic soybean oil fried its foods adequately without changing the flavor, Dedrick said.
Monsanto then had to demonstrate to farmers that its Vistive-brand soybean would produce an oil that lacked trans fat without decreasing the per-acre yield. Without that reassurance, farmers would have been reluctant to switch cropland to the new seed.
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Here is how other major U.S. fast-food chains are reacting to the campaign to eliminate trans fat:
* Wendy's International Inc. said in June that it would begin frying its French fries and breaded chicken items with non-hydrogenated oil, which is free of trans fat.
* McDonald's Corp. promised in 2002 to reduce trans fat in some of its products but has yet to convert its oils entirely, saying it has not found an alternative that works as well as partially hydrogenated oil.
* Burger King Holdings Inc. has been evaluating low-trans-fat and trans-fat-free oils for nearly two years. The company has said that it is considering several options and that, based on testing, its concern was flavor.
* The Dunkin' Donuts chain in 2004 started removing trans fat from its bagels, muffins and cookies and is researching ways to do so with doughnuts while still satisfying customers.
* CKE Restaurants Inc., operator of Hardee's and Carl's Jr., is looking into the issue but has no timetable.
* Starbucks Corp. said in June that it was actively researching alternatives to high-fat products. The company said it planned to eliminate trans fat from seasonal baked goods -- but not necessarily other products -- by this fall.
* KFC parent Yum Brands Inc., which also owns the Long John Silver's, A&W; and Taco Bell chains, has said it is exploring similar moves for its brands other than KFC.
Sources: Reuters, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Times research
Los Angeles Times