KFC said Monday it is phasing out trans fats in cooking its Original Recipe and Extra Crispy fried chicken, Potato Wedges and other menu items, but has not found a good alternative yet for its biscuits.
Health experts say trans fats raise levels of artery-clogging cholesterol and contribute to heart disease.
The restaurant chain said it will start using zero trans fat soybean oil system-wide in the United States with the rollout expected to be completed by April 2007. KFC said many of its approximately 5,500 restaurants already have switched.
KFC President Gregg Dedrick said there would be no change in the taste of the chicken and other food items.
"There is no compromise," he said at a Manhattan news conference. "Nothing is more important to us than the quality of our food and preserving the terrific taste of our product."
Crispy Strips, Wings, Boneless Wings, Buffalo and Crispy Snacker Sandwiches, Popcorn Chicken and Twisters also will be made with the zero transfat cooking oil.
"We've been working for over two years, with extensive research, development, and testing, to not compromise at all in the taste of our world-famous chicken, and yet also have a zero trans fat solution," Dedrick told CBS Radio News.
But Dedrick said some products including biscuits will still be made with trans fat while KFC keeps looking for alternatives.
"We've already begun the conversion process to our new cooking oil, and we will take up to six months, by the end of April, to have it in all 5500 restaurants across the United States," he said.
The announcement came just ahead of a New York City Board of Health public hearing on a plan to make New York the first U.S. city to ban restaurants from serving food containing artificial trans fats.
Denmark is the only country to have sharply limited trans fats, passing a law in 2003 that came into effect in 2004, making it illegal for any food to contain more than 2 percent of trans fat.
A Danish study of fast food restaurants in dozens of countries in 2004 and 2005 found remarkably wide variations in trans fat content from country to country, from city to city within the same nation, and from restaurant to restaurant in the same city.
At KFCs in Poland and Hungary, a large hot wings-and-fries order had 19 grams of trans fats or more, versus 5.5 grams for wings and fried potato wedges in New York, the study found. But in Germany, Russia, Denmark and Aberdeen, Scotland, the same meal had less than a gram.
The change at KFC applies only to U.S. restaurants for now, Dedrick said.
Artificial trans fat is so common that the average American eats 4.7 pounds of it a year, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
The switch was applauded by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which sued the Louisville, Kentucky-based KFC in June over the trans fat content of its chicken.
In advance of the news conference, CSPI's Michael Jacobson told CBS Radio News his group would withdraw from the lawsuit if KFC announced it was getting rid of trans fat.
KFC is not the only business preparing for a trans-fat-free future.
Wendy's International Inc., the burger restaurant chain company, has already switched to a zero-trans fat oil. Fast-food leader McDonald's Corp. had announced that it intended to do so as well in 2003, but has yet to follow through.
If New York City approves banning food with artificial trans fats, it would only affect city restaurants, not grocery stores. But experts said the city's foodservice industry is so large, any change in its rules is likely to have a ripple effect nationwide.
"It's huge. 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, R.I., where students are experimenting with substitute oils and shortenings.
New York's thousands of independently owned restaurants are beginning to look for ways to make changes too — not all happily.
Richard Lipsky, a spokesman for the Neighborhood Retail Alliance, said many eatery owners rely on ingredients prepared elsewhere, and are not always aware whether the foods they sell contain trans fats.
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, the oil is used as a shortening in baked goods like cookies, crackers and doughnuts, as well as in deep frying.
"Trans fats raise the bad cholesterol and they lower the good cholesterol. It's the only fat that does that," Jacobson said. "In addition, it seems to affect the walls of our arteries, making them more prone to 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.
Ironically, many big fast food companies only became dependent on hydrogenated oil a decade and a half ago when they were pressured by health groups to do something about saturated fat.
McDonald's emptied its french fryers of beef tallow in 1990 and filled them with what was then thought to be "heart healthy" partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.
"They did so in all innocence, trying to do the right thing," said Jacobson. "Everybody thought it was safe. We thought it was safe."
Some restaurants were still completing the changeover when the first major study appeared indicating that the hydrogenated oils were just as bad for you, if not worse.
KFC is part of Yum Brands Inc., which also owns the Taco Bell and Pizza Hut chains.