The restaurant chain said it would start using zero-trans-fat soybean oil systemwide in the United States, with the rollout expected to be completed by April. KFC said many of its approximately 5,500 restaurants already had switched.
KFC president Gregg Dedrick said there would be no change in the taste of the chicken and other food items.
KFC originally tested corn oil and canola oil before rejecting them because of "unacceptable" changes to the food's flavor, Dedrick said. With the soybean-based oil, he said, the flavor will stay the same.
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.
The change at KFC applies only to U.S. restaurants for now, Dedrick said. He said the company was trying to find replacement oils for its overseas restaurants.
Artificial trans fats are so common that the average American eats 4.7 pounds of them a year, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
The switch was applauded by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is supporting a lawsuit against KFC over the trans-fats content of its chicken. The suit filed by Arthur Hoyte, a Maryland physician, seeks $74,000 in damages for every person who was not warned about the fats before eating at Washington KFC restaurants in the last three years.
KFC is not the only business preparing for a trans-fat-free future.
Wendy's International Inc., the burger restaurant chain company, already has switched to a zero-trans-fat oil. Fast-food leader McDonald's Corp. had announced that it intended to do so in 2003, but has yet to follow through.
The Walt Disney Co. said Oct. 16 that it would remove trans fats from food served in its theme parks and resorts by the end of 2007.
"Eventually we are going to have trans fats out of all foods," said Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of food-service strategies at WD Partners in Columbus, Ohio. "KFC's announcement is one more step down a path. In three or four years, it will be gone, maybe sooner."
At yesterday's Board of Health hearing, restaurant-industry representatives said they would need time to implement the proposed ban on artificial trans fats and questioned whether there is enough U.S. supply of alternative oils to make up for the product if it is banned.
Experts said the city's food-service industry was so large that any change in its rules was likely to ripple nationwide.
"It's huge. It's going to be the trendsetter for the entire country," said Suzanne Vieira, director of culinary nutrition at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., where students are experimenting with substitute oils and shortenings.
Invented in the early 1900s, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil was initially believed to be a healthy substitute for natural fats such as butter or lard. It also was cheaper, performed better under high heat, and had a longer shelf life.
Today, it is used as a shortening in baked goods such as cookies, crackers and doughnuts, as well as in deep frying.
The product is made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil, turning it into a solid, and creating trans fats in the process.
Ironically, many big 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.
Some restaurants were still completing the changeover when the first major study appeared indicating that the hydrogenated oils were as bad or worse than saturated fat.
When eaten, trans fats significantly raise the level of so-called "bad" cholesterol in the blood. Researchers at Harvard's School of Public Health estimated that trans fats contribute to 30,000 U.S. deaths a year.
KFC is part of Yum Brands Inc., which also owns the Taco Bell and Pizza Hut chains.
Yum shares rose $1.14, or 1.9 percent, to $60.10 on the New York Stock Exchange, near the upper end of their 52-week range of $44.21 to $61.84.
47 Pounds of trans fats eaten by Americans each year.
30,000 Estimated number of fatalities per year related to trans fats.
5,500 KFC restaurants in the U.S. that will switch to soybean-based oil by April.
3 Other outlets abandoning trans fats: McDonald's, Wendy's and Walt Disney.
$74,000 Amount of lawsuit damages sought for each KFC customer in Washington not warned about trans fats.