KFC Corp. is on tap to deliver what it says is a "major announcement" in New York Monday about a change coming to all 5,500 of its U.S. restaurants. Franchise owners told several newspapers and magazines that KFC would stop using partially hydrogenated vegetable oil - the primary source of artificial trans fats.
Representatives of the company and its parent, Louisville, Kentucky-based Yum Brands Inc., declined to comment, but the possible switch was applauded by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which sued KFC in June over the trans fat content of its chicken.
"Assuming KFC goes through with it, it would be a tremendous improvement for the nutritional quality of their foods," said the center's executive director, Mike Jacobson.
It comes as New York City considers a trans fats ban. On Monday, the city's Board of Health will hold its first public hearing on a proposal to make New York the first U.S. city to ban restaurants from serving food containing artificial trans fats.
The fat fight is one of many crusades spearheaded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who shook up smokers with new restrictions, tried to switch the city to non-partisan elections, and has been irritating the gun industry with alinking mayors in many big cities.
If approved, New York's trans fat ban would only affect restaurants, not grocery stores, and would not extend beyond the city limits. But experts said the city's food service industry, with 24,600 establishments, is so large that any rule change is likely to ripple nationwide.
"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, Rhode Island.
Richard Lipsky, a spokesman for the Neighborhood Retail Alliance, said many New York eatery owners rely on ingredients prepared elsewhere, and are not always aware whether the foods they sell contain trans fats.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, artificial trans fatty acids are so widely used that the average American eats 4.7 pounds a year. New York City health officials say these so-called trans fats are so unhealthy they belong in the same category as food spoiled by rodent droppings.
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, it is used for deep frying and as a shortening in baked goods like cookies and crackers.
Ironically, many fast food companies became dependent on hydrogenated oil about 15 years ago when they were pressured by health groups to do something about saturated fat. McDonald's emptied its fryers of beef tallow in 1990 and filled them with what was then thought to be "heart healthy" partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.
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.
Wendy's, the national burger chain, has already switched to a zero-trans fat oil. McDonald's announced in 2003 that it intended to do so, but has yet to follow through.
Consumer reaction to the proposed crackdown remains to be seen.
New Jersey state senator Ellen Karcher said her office was flooded with threatening phone calls after she proposed a similar trans fat ban in early October. A proposed ban in Chicago was ridiculed by some as government paternalism run amok.
Dr. Leslie Cho, medical director for preventative cardiology and rehabilitation at the Cleveland Clinic, said people might be less upset if they knew how bad trans fats are for the body.
"I don't know anything about politics, but what I tell my patients is that they should not eat any type of artificial trans fat," she said.
Do they listen?
"The majority of the people I deal with have had stents or bypass surgery," she said. "They are kind of motivated to change their lives."