KFC bans trans-fat in chicken: Are they pulling our leg?

kfcMy advertising radar blipped with guarded glee when I heard KFC was being wildly applauded as the hero of the hour for ditching their trans-fats in fried foods in favor of a low linolenic soybean oil.

KFC’s drive-through banners tout “Feed your family for under $4!” and “Looney Tunes Laptop meals designed just for kids” so my initial take on this news was a bit cynical, “gee, kids can now order a cheap heart attack on a plate and parents will be duped into thinking it’s new, improved & finger-lickin’ healthy.”

Michele Simon, head of Center for Informed Food Choices has written an insightful new book outlining rhetoric vs. reality when it comes to food industry change, so I figured I’d put the KFC news through her policy paces to see if they just have an ‘Appetite for Profit’ or if there are far-reaching implications that benefit us all.

Good news! So far, it appears this fast food maneuver passes the sniff test, with some potentially FABULOUS trickle down benefits for a healthier planet. However

…I see some Super Sized mixed messages from their parent company, “Yum!” Brands, who has Taco Bell promoting a ‘fourth meal’ to restless TEENS between dinner and breakfast.

They’ll need to sweep up their house of hypocrisy and clean up their zero trans-fat and marketing messages at Pizza Hut, A&W, and Long John Silver Brands in order to inch toward positive progress for kids.

Before you shrug it off as ‘who cares, I don’t touch the stuff’…

Or, ‘kids will eat fast food regardless so this doesn’t solve squat’…

Remind yourself that America’s obesity problem IS your problem, because it’s hitting you smack dab in the pocketbook.

According to the Keystone Forum research study on ‘Away from Home’ foods, medical expenses attributed to overweight and obesity issues are estimated to have reached $92.6 billion PER YEAR, which is 9.1% of the total U.S. expenditures.

Toss in the long term health care crisis of kids with Type 2 diabetes, early signs of heart disease and a generation of kids at risk for the first time ever of having a shorter life expectancy and higher mortality rate than their parents, and you can see how this will impact you, whether your family habits are healthy or not.

YOUR family may not eat KFC, or ANY franchise takeout, but chances are good that trans-fat plays a role somewhere in your life, since the FDA says artificial trans fat is so common that the average American eats 4.7 pounds of it a year.

Researchers at Harvard’s School of Public Health estimated that trans fats contribute to 30,000 U.S. deaths a year.

There’s talk that fast food should mandate nutrition info right up front, so people KNOW what they’re eating. In fairness, many corporate websites house this enlightening info, including KFC, but point of purchase would be MUCH more impactful. (which is why it will probably never occur)

Dr. Robert H. Eckel, immediate past president of the American Heart Association spoke of trans-fats with pointblank candor, “This is something we’d like to dismiss from our food supply.”

Many of us are still grappling with even more basic questions like: What IS trans-fat? Why is it so bad, and how did it ever get into the food supply to begin with?

But look around, it’s there…Trans-fats, sat-fats and junk food are pervasive in record quantities.

Kids can’t even seem to be on a sports team without ‘snack’ pouches of processed crud being passed out to negate what little athletic activity has transpired. Preschool snacks? Let’s see, an entire TEACHING curriculum brought to you by Fruit Loops.

Lunchables? On most every primary playground I’ve ever seen. After school district homework clubs? More foil-pouched trans-fat junk.

Teen scene? Date night drive-throughs, and soda staples, followed by the plethora of new sodium/sugar laden sports & energy drinks all with factual implications for adolescent growth.

I’m still trying to get a handle on how we started accepting these offerings as ‘food’ much less how we shifted into this toxic trans-fat lifestyle.

Removing trans-fats and raising awareness of how trans-fats contribute to heart disease with artery-clogging cholesterol is great, but we need to really take a hard look at how our entire way of eating has changed…along with the processed ‘choices’ for consumption too.

If it can’t be wrapped, sealed, labeled, and branded, America’s pretty much abandoned it, since that’s where corporate coffers make their bucks.

Case in point, our “tween” volleyball team was cooing the other day at how ‘cool’ the Earthbound Farm organic apples were that I brought for ‘snack.’ Guess why? They’re individually wrapped, sliced, handy, and ready for the lunchbox purchased from Costco.

Granted, no trans-fats; organic apples were an easily-distributed-harried-mom solution.(as McDonalds would say, “It’s what I eat and what I do.” —But I’M NOT “lovin’ it” because convenience packaging like this takes its toll on the planet too, and that was my lazy way of adding to the problem)

This is part of America’s fast-n-frenzied lifestyle, and even the sliver shifting toward ‘slow foods’ and ‘whole foods’ need to be aware it’s a very slight dent, with glacial movement.

One fifth of America’s meals are now consumed in the family car, a third of U.S. parents eat takeout regularly, and 39% of consumers use a drive-through at least once a week.

And passing judgment on those facts with a ‘not me’ high brow tone seems akin to those skewed TV polls where suddenly everyone is tuned to pbs instead of silly sitcoms or raunchy reality shows.

Just ain’t happenin,’ folks. So let’s get real.

“Perfect parents” claiming to have a homemade sit-down dinner nightly are either blowin’ smoke or miracle workers, because even the most avid full-time, stay-at-home parent is often hard-pressed with over-time volunteer expectations from schools, sports teams, fundraising and co-op demands carving into daily logistics.

Am I right?

The pace of society has accelerated, and grab-n-go tendencies prevail, so we need to remind ourselves that we can’t solve kids’ obesity epidemic without looking at the reality of how people eat and then make changes at the food supply and policy levels.

Here’s what some notable industry leaders said about KFC’s new policy:

“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, Rhode Island where students experiment with substitute oils and shortenings.

“Colonel Sanders deserves a bucket full of praise,” crowed Michael Jacobsen of Center for Science in the Public Interest, who normally is the bellwether for food industry skepticism.

I tried to contact Michele Simon for an interview or find a quote on her new Big Food Watch blog but alas, she’s still on her east coast book tour.

Instead, I used her book’s corporate gauge of motivation and profiteering to assess why I think KFC’s move to eliminate trans-fats has some serious chops.

Here goes:

1.) KFC tested trans-fat removal secretly for two years on their customers to ensure they didn’t lose market share based on a flavor shift. (financial self-interest/checkpoint one)

2.) KFC announced their plans an hour ahead of a public hearing on a proposal that would make New York the first U.S. city to ban trans-fats. (PR self-interest trump-card/ checkpoint two, avoid regulation, self-rein for control, ‘do the right thing’ policy)

3.) KFC set a finite date of April 2007 for phasing in zero-trans-fat chicken oil to ALL of their 5500 U.S. stores. (trackable, first strike competitive slam, checkpoint three)

This last maneuver’s particularly clever, for it reveals empty promise purveyors like McDonalds who press-blitzed this baby way back in 2002, never stepped up to the plate, and rightly assumed no one one would really notice aside from a few relentless food advocates and media jabs…

You KNOW the media’s all over this now making comparisons between the two. In fact, check out USA Today’s left sidebar to see what other fast food players are doing on the trans-fat front.

4.) Finally, fast food outlets, casual dining and restaurant industry lobbyists with a ‘no can do’ attitude will now have to scramble to keep pace with KFC, or they’ll risk looking like liars or losers. Not pretty on the shareholder scene. (checkpoint four, my absolute fave!)

So there you have it. The gauntlet has been thrown down.

KFC has launched a no excuses effort that should benefit kids, curb the trans-fat tide, and start to cinch the obesity belt in this country.

As Jacobson said, “If KFC, which deep-fries almost everything, can get the artificial trans-fat out of its frying oil, anyone can.”

Jacobson even dismissed the CSPI lawsuit against KFC which appears to be a good faith effort he’s confident this will stick.

Yes, kids will continue to beg for fast food crud, even if they know it’s not good for them. (too much preaching could even make it ‘contraband’ and up the ante)

Yes, teens will be subjected to gross portion distortion promos piled high and wide, like Burger King’s ‘quad-stackers’ promo for 4-meat patties on a bun, egad.

And yes, there is still a desperate need to reverse the coolness caché surrounding unhealthy choices. The new caffeine energy drinks are particularly subversive, positioning ‘rebellion’ as a marketing lure to entice kids to walk on their wild side.

They’re vying for the dollars of teenagers with “promises of weight loss, increased endurance and legal highs” to the tune of 80% growth in a $3.4 billion-a-year industry of top-selling brands like Monster, Rockstar & Red Bull. Definitely ones to watch next.

But reviewing just the fast food category, KFC’s move seems to be a healthy START in a very promising direction, as long as we keep a keen eye on the spin-doctoring, and avoid being lulled into complacency.

Most of us scan headline news as we bolt out the door figuring, “crisis averted, things are on the right track,” but we’re only skimming the surface of the country’s mammoth problem…

Unlike fast food, KFC’s trans-fat policy seems crisp, fresh and worthy.



  1. Connie Evers, M.S.,R.D.
    Child Nutrition Consultant/Author
    Just posted this to our dialogue on the Kaboodle site: 2006-11-09 12:10:31

    Re: Trans-fats & childhood obesity

    I think the biggest source of trans fats in a child’s diet has to be fried food from the various fast food restaurants that have not made the change. Trans fat comes from vegetable oil which has been “partially hydrogenated.” The reason they do this is because it greatly increases the stability of the oil. So you can see why restaurants that do a lot of deep-frying want a more stable oil. It has also been used a lot in baked goods for the same reason (to increase shelf life).

    It’s actually easier now to detect trans fat in the foods you purchase because of the change in the U.S. labeling laws. (I need some help here, Canadians — do you have trans fat listed on your food labels?). The only tricky part is that you still need to look at the ingredient label to detect “partially hydrogenated …” ingredients. A label can list 0 trans fat if the amount per serving is less than .5 grams.

    It’s also important to look at saturated fat. Saturated fats are not chemically produced but they still contribute to an increased cholesterol and higher risk of heart disease. So you want to watch for the products with “no trans fat” that now have higher levels of saturated fat. Still not good!

    As far as trans fats and obesity, there is really no caloric difference between trans fats and other types of fats (all register around 9 calories/gram). The so-called “good” fats just have a healthier profile in terms of preventing disease. Examples of better fats include olive oil, canola oil, nuts, and avocados.

    There have been a few very preliminary studies linking trans fats/sat fats to an increase in abdominal obesity, but the jury is still out on that one…

    Connie Evers, M.S.,R.D.
    Child Nutrition Consultant/Author

  2. Here in Australia, KFC have replaced their partially hydrogenated vegetable oil with palm oil, so they are now virtually trans fat free. Problem is, the new oil contains 52% saturated fats.

    In recent talks with our Federal government they have refused to reduce the level of saturates, while still calmly proclaiming their food is healthier than it used to be.

    Over the last year a whole series of food manufacturers have replaced their trans fats-full oils with saturates. Trans are the nutritional super-evil of the moment. They’re definitely bad for us, but it’s distracting everyone from the real issues of making our food healthier.

  3. THe truth about palm oil…

    The tropical lowland forests of Indonesia, the orangutans preferred habitat is being destroyed by the big consortiums of palm-oil producers. Thousands of orangutans have met their end, by the shot of a gun, a hack from a machete or simply by starvation. Looking into the eyes of a traumatized infant whose mother just a week ago lay slain beside him/her, you see so much pain, so much terror, and so much confusion. It is agonizing seeing a small orphaned orangutan coming to terms with all this pain.

    We cry for and with them, we share their pain. But somehow, seeing a starving wild adult orangutan staggering around, with her half dead infant slung over her shoulder, in the open fields of a palm oil plantation, or an adult male seemingly having lost his dignity and majestic powers, his once big, fat cheek-pads collapsed to skin-flaps because of starvation, or an orangutan being buried alive after having been beaten half to death …just somehow, it touches somewhere so much deeper. It brings pain, anger, frustration, and disbelief that so many people do not really give a damn.

    We often receive phone calls from palm oil plantation managers to come and remove orangutans from their plantations. Often we receive the message to hurry as they have already themselves caught the orangutan. We know this means trouble. In order to catch a wild adult orangutan and tie it down successfully you would have to beat it unconscious first. Most orangutans having been caught by plantation workers die from concussions or internal
    bleeding. But nothing had really prepared us for the day when we were called by a plantation manager in Pundu, some 80 km from the project. Despite having been told several times not to catch the orangutans themselves, they continue to ignore our recommendations. When the team arrived they saw an adult female lying on the ground not far
    from a newly cut down tree. As they approached they noticed that she was not tied and concluded she must have been beaten unconscious by the workers.

    Nothing never really prepares you neither for blood nor for death. This hardened rescue team who have seen newly burned corpses, 5 day old decomposed bodies, orangutan having been beaten to death or buried alive, had to step back from what lay in front of them. The female was still alive but only barely. She was covered in blood from several deep slashes from sharp machetes. One of her hands had almost been cut off, and was only held on by a little muscle and skin on the side. The other was likewise almost cut off but at the wrist. The machete had cut through skin, tendons and bone in one swift cut. Now the female was lying there in front of their eyes slowly bleeding to death.

    It was almost too much for some of the rescue workers and one of them almost attacked the nearest plantation worker with a machete in his hand.”

  4. Hello Byron,
    I am totally with you on that!! Seeing an animal dying for our cruel actions is unacceptable..
    And like the food is even good for us! It’s basically a heart attack, stroke combo with cholesterol on the side and diabetes for a snack..

  5. Too right you are, Sherene:)
    Ive stopped eating KFC after reading ur comment:)
    Thanks a bunch for your eye opening comment!!

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