KFC Joins the Trans-Fat Fight

The company's switch to a soybean-based oil is a step in the right direction, even if the impact on Americans' eating habits is limited

Do consumers consider trans-fat finger lickin' good? KFC, in aiming for a healthier, non-trans-fat version of its fried chicken, is betting that healthy arteries will trump the expense of more frequent frying oil changes. KFC Corp., a division of Yum! Brands (YUM), said on Oct. 30 that it's converting its 5,500 restaurants to zero grams trans-fat cooking oil by switching to a soybean-based alternative.

KFC's decision, timed to coincide with the first public hearing Monday on New York's proposed trans-fats ban, drew applause from all corners. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food activist group and one of KFC's most vocal critics, even withdrew from a lawsuit aimed to force KFC to stop using the artery-clogging trans-fat oils for frying its chicken. "Colonel Sanders deserves a bucket full of praise," says Michael Jacobson, the center's executive director.

Trans-fats is shorthand for trans-fatty acids, which are created when hydrogen is injected into oils. They also occur naturally in meat and dairy products. Eating trans-fats increases the risk of coronary heart disease, because they solidify and limit the body's ability to regulate cholesterol.

But some food nutritionists and doctors believe the hullabaloo over trans-fat might give the impression that these are health foods. "I call trans-fats a calorie distracter," says Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition at New York University and author of What to Eat and Food Politics. Indeed, nutritionists worry whether the "trans-fat free" imprint on many foods, from cookies to french fries, might even give the dangerous impression that the foods are fat free. After all, reports linking fast-food, snacks, and soda companies to childhood obesity have become more urgent in recent months. And the American Medical Assn. recently estimated that 17% of children between ages 6 and 19 are obese.

A Complicated Problem

Removing trans-fat from cooking oils that are used for frying chickens at KFC doesn't remove calories. "Trans-fat raises the level of bad cholesterol in the body, which contributes to heart disease," says Dr. Robert Eckel, a professor of medicine at the University of Colorado and former president of the American Heart Assn. "However, eating too much food that's fried in oil, even if it's trans-fat free, can lead to obesity, which also contributes to heart disease."

And given the direction American food habits have been heading in, getting rid of trans-fats is just one issue in the obesity debate. After all, research from the NPD Group shows that Americans are eating more hamburgers, doughnuts, French fries, and fried chicken than ever before. Harry Balzer, a noted food researcher at NPD Group, says "fried chicken is the fastest-growing fast-food menu item in the last decade" (see BusinessWeek.com, 11/9/05, "Fat Times for Fast Food"). No wonder fast-food chains like Hardee's of CKE Restaurants (CKR) have introduced massive portions such as the Monster Thickburger (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/29/06, "Fast-Food Chains Buck the Healthy Trend").

And hardly anyone believes KFC changed its oils because it merely wants healthier Americans. Rather, it bowed to pressure from food activists and nutritionists. KFC's announcement seems to have been precipitated by two proposals from the New York City Health Commissioner, Dr. Thomas Frieden, who wants the city's restaurants "to stop storing, distributing, holding or using cooking oils, shortening, and margarine that would result in anything greater than 0.5 grams of trans-fat per serving." The proposal gives restaurants six months to switch to alternative oils, and imposes fines of $200 to $2,000 for violations. The other proposal calls for the restaurants to make information on calories available on their menus and Web sites.

New York Opposition

The New York restaurant industry opposes the trans-fat ban proposal, and says six months isn't enough time to find trans-fat substitutes. "Menus are complicated and many restaurants will wait until the deadline, which will lead to an oil supply problem and drive prices up," says Chuck Hunt, executive vice-president of the greater New York City chapters of the New York State Restaurant Assn., which represents 3,500 restaurants in the city's five boroughs. Not everyone buys the shortage argument, however. "Oh, for heaven's sake, this country is drowning in soy oil," says NYU's Nestle.

Ironically, suppliers of the trans-fat-free oil would be largely the same as those companies that now manufacture trans-fat oils. The J. M. Smucker Co., which makes the most widely available trans-fatty oil, Crisco, released its Zero Grams trans-fat Crisco two years ago. It said that the newly formulated oil would produce the same results as the original Crisco. Other big manufacturers of soybean oil are the agriculture companies Cargill, Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM), and Bunge (BG).

What's really at stake here is that hydrogenated oil stays stable for longer periods, allowing restaurants to use the same oil for weeks. Regular oil goes rancid fairly quickly, and many restaurants would need to buy more oil than they currently do. And for pastry and cookies, hydrogenated oil has just the right consistency for baking and gives the products a longer shelf life. Those bakeries might end up using alternatives that might be just as harmful for the heart. "Lard, palm oil and coconut oil aren't acceptable alternatives for us," says Dr. Eckel.

Joining Other Chains

Still, Dr. Eckel commended KFC's effort, and wonders why it took so long. KFC joins other national fast-food restaurants Wendy's (WEN), Ruby Tuesday (RI), and Brinker International's (EAT) Chili's chain that fry in trans-fat-free oils. Kraft Foods (KFT), the nation's largest packaged foods maker, is also switching away from trans-fats in some of its products. Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest even called for the other big fast-food chains to join in: "What are McDonald's and Burger King (BKC) waiting for now?" Dr. Catherine Adams, McDonald's (MCD) vice-president for quality, food safety, and nutrition, released a statement saying the company is still researching oil alternatives.

"Our priority is to also meet our customer expectations for taste and quality," she said. Earlier this year, in a report published in The New England Journal of Medicine, a study found that fries and chicken sold at McDonald's and KFCs in Denmark, Scotland, and Germany had very low trans-fat content compared to what's sold in the U.S. Adams didn't respond to a question about why its European fries and chickens were fried in oils containing less trans-fat than in America.

Maybe McDonald's will also yield to the enormous pressure and remove trans-fats from its oils. Of course, that won't necessarily mean fries will become a healthy food. "But changing American food habits is harder than removing something deleterious from the food supply," says Nestle, while noting that a departure from trans-fats certainly represents a step in the right direction when it comes to U.S. health habits.

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