Proposed trans fat ban in NYC restaurants could have ripple effect across the country

KFC Corp. said it was planning a "major announcement" in New York on 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.

Artificial trans fatty acids, which are so common that the average American eats 4.7 pounds (2.1 kilograms) a year, according to the Food and Drug Administration. 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, reports AP.

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.

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