MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
The fast food chain KFC says it will phase out unhealthy trans fats from its cooking oil. The chain says all of its 5500 restaurants will make the transition by next spring. The announcement was made in New York City this morning just before the city's board of health held a hearing to discuss limiting trans fat in restaurants.
We have two reports, beginning with NPR's Allison Aubrey on KFC's announcement.
ALLISON AUBREY: The world of fast food can be slow to change its ways, especially when customers enjoy what they're eating. In the case of Kentucky Fried Chicken, many people swear by the Colonel's original recipe, diners like Melva Mosley, who we met at a Washington KFC this afternoon.
Ms. MELVA MOSLEY: I guess it tastes good and spicy, you know, good and spicy. Not hot.
AUBREY: The trouble, though, is that chicken is fried in an oil that's loaded with trans fat and nutritionists say that's bad. Trans fat has the double whammy effect of helping raise bad cholesterol and lowering good cholesterol.
KFC president Gregg Dedrick says in the last few years, it's become clear that some customers wanted a change.
Mr. GREGG DEDRICK (President, KFC): Because our customers told us that we love your chicken, but we'd just as soon not have the trans fat.
AUBREY: So this has been KFC's challenge, how to keep the taste but lose the trans fat. Dedrick says the resolution has been two years in the making. The company first tried replacing soybean oil with corn-based oil, but it didn't work.
Mr. DEDRICK: There was a compromise of our taste, and we said we would not go to market unless our customers got the same great taste, so that's why we kept searching.
AUBREY: Eventually they hit on it - a soybean oil similar to what they've been using, but with one major change. It's not made from partially hydrogenated oil, which is the source of trans fat.
Mr. DEDRICK: And what we found is the flavor profile was unchanged, so there was no compromise in that. And we then took it out to customers and did in-store testing, and we let them eat chicken from both the previous cooking oil and our new cooking oil and they could not discern any taste differences.
AUBREY: So by next April, Dedrick says, all KFC franchises across the country will be frying with the new alternative. Dedrick says he's hoping the move will bring some customers back, and the company may also be betting that critics in the nutrition world will turn their attention elsewhere.
Bonnie Liebman is one. She's a nutritionist for the consumer group, Center for Science in the Public Interest. Her problem with trans fats is that they were never a natural part of the diet. They were engineered in part to help lengthen the shelf life of food.
Ms. BONNIE LIEBMAN (Center for Science in the Public Interest): It's a way of making liquid oils more solid, so you could turn liquid oil into margarine, for example. That was necessary many years ago. Now food scientists have figured out how to make margarines using very little trans or none at all.
AUBREY: Last summer, Liebman's group announced a lawsuit against KFC over trans fats. Today, they dropped that suit and Liebman says momentum is building.
Ms. LIEBMAN: Wendy's has made the change and some chain restaurants like Chili's and Ruby Tuesday are no longer frying in trans fats. The question is when McDonald's and when Burger King will also make the change.
AUBREY: Some consumers think that a healthier oil doesn't taste as good, but nutritionists say that's bunk. And KFC's Gregg Dedrick says he's convinced consumers won't notice a thing.
Mr. DEDRICK: I've tasted it quite a bit and I can't tell the difference, and I eat our chicken all the time.
AUBREY: But perhaps his arteries will note the change. One extra crispy meal using the old oil has up to 15 grams of trans fat. That's more than a week's worth of the recommended maximum.
Kentucky Fried Chicken is owned by Yum! Brand food, which also includes Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. Dedrick says those brands are gearing up for similar transition plans. But Liebman says consumers should always be on guard when they choose fast food, even chicken fried in healthy oil is still fried and therefore high in fat and calories.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.
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