Oct. 30, 2006 -- Fast-food giant KFC announced Monday it would begin frying its chicken and other foods in oil free of trans fats. Consumption of trans fats is linked to risk of coronary heart disease.
The company said it plans to convert fryers in its 5,500 restaurants to a "low-linolenic" soy bean oil that contains no trans fats.
The conversion is scheduled for completion by April 2007 and will apply to chicken, potato wedges, and other fried foods on KFC menus. Other items, like biscuits, pot pies, and mashed potatoes with gravy, will continue to contain trans fats, said Gregg Dedrick, president of KFC Corporation.
Trans fats are byproducts of hydrogenation, used to increase the shelf life of cooking oils. Companies have come under fire from consumer and health groups in recent years because of mounting evidence that trans fats raise levels of LDL "bad" cholesterol and lower HDL "good" cholesterol.
"This is a major breakthrough," Dedrick said in a telephone conference call with reporters. "We're committed to working on the remaining nonfried items."
Dedrick said the new oil was developed over two years by KFC in response to consumers' desire for trans-fat-free food.
The consumer watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest announced Monday it would drop out of a lawsuit it filed against KFC in June seeking to force the chain to warn consumers about the dangers of trans fat in its food.
The move brings KFC in line with other restaurant chains, including Wendy's, Chili's, and Ruby Tuesday, that have already removed trans fat from most of their menu items.
"If KFC, which deep-fries almost everything, can get the artificial trans fat out of its frying oil, anyone can," CSPI Executive Director Michael Jacobson said in a statement.
Still, in interviews, nutritionists said that use of the new oils, while laudable, does not transform fried food into health food.
The new oil is still high in fat and calories, the bane of a nation where more than 60% of adults are deemed overweight or obese.
"If obesityobesity is your problem, the fried food is going to be a no-no," said Lalita Kaul, PhD, a professor of nutrition at the Howard University Medical School in Washington, D.C. "Still take it in moderation."
Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, a nutritionist and weight control specialist at Drexel University, warned that heating and cooling of oil can form trans fats, potentially reducing the benefit of the company's new oil.
"If you're the first order of chicken out of the fryer, you're good. If you're a few days later, you might as well have the old stuff," Gerbstadt said.
Dedrick said the company has tested the oil throughout its normal cooking life. "We're not aware of any trans fat making its way into the product," he said.
He said the new oil is more expensive than older, partially hydrogenated oil, but that the company had no plans to raise prices to compensate for the increased costs.