Extra Crispy Chicken And Deep-Fried Panic

The truth about trans fat

Editor's Note: Steve Chapman is on vacation. The following column was originally published in June 2006.

The people at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) could give meddlesome busybodies a bad name. In fact, that almost seems to be the point of their 2006 lawsuit targeting KFC's use of cooking oil with trans fat. CSPI thinks that if companies and customers don't shun this type of fat, the courts should step in and force them to.

Scientists generally agree that trans fat is not the healthiest thing to include in your diet. It raises levels of "bad" cholesterol, which is believed to increase the risk of heart disease. But it's one thing to say there are drawbacks to the consumption of trans fat and another to insist that fast-food restaurants immediately get rid of it. When it comes to dietary dangers, today's wisdom is often tomorrow's folly.

Trans fat is a good example. Back in 1988, when CSPI was demanding that McDonald's stop using beef tallow to cook french fries, it dismissed worries about trans-fat-laden hydrogenated cooking oil: "All told, the charges against trans fat just don't stand up. And by extension, hydrogenated oils seem relatively innocent." Now, it says just the opposite. But the discovery of its error has not fostered any humility about imposing its preferences.

Prudence is commendable, but the lawsuit stems from a less useful impulse: panic. It's easy to exaggerate the threat posed by this type of fat, and CSPI happily seizes the opportunity.

The lawsuit says KFC's continued use of partially hydrogenated oil is "outrageous" and betrays the company's "evil motive, intent to injure, ill will" and other nasty traits. It argues that KFC "recklessly puts its customers at risk of a Kentucky Fried Coronary." CSPI also claims that a panel commissioned by the federal Institute of Medicine "concluded that the only safe level of trans fat in the diet is zero."

I asked one member of the panel, Tufts University nutrition science professor Alice Lichtenstein, if that is an accurate summary of its findings. "No," she replied. What the report concluded, she said, is that "consumption should be as low as possible because there's no human requirement for trans fat. That's different." Saying we don't need trans fat to sustain life is a long way from saying the tiniest exposure could be lethal.

Lichtenstein favors a phaseout of hydrogenated oils, but she is careful not to overstate their dangers. Despite the effect of trans fat on bad cholesterol, she says, there is no data on whether it raises the risk of heart disease.

Other experts also exhibit cooler heads than those at CSPI. In 2005, Dr. Scott Grundy, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, told The New York Times that the alleged connection between trans fat and heart disease is too weak to warrant a government recommendation.

Trans fat is not some toxic contaminant, like arsenic or salmonella, guaranteed to make you sick. Cardiovascular health is a complicated product of many factors, including genes, exercise, smoking, alcohol use, body weight, overall diet, and—maybe—trans fat.

Even if it does contribute to heart disease, the courts have no business dictating whether fast-food restaurants may use it. For customers who care, KFC gives ample information on its website and in brochures available in its restaurants. The man CSPI is representing in this lawsuit says he knew trans fat is unhealthy but had no idea KFC uses it. If he didn't care enough to ask, why should the courts care enough to intervene?

Food giants, it may be helpful to recall, don't set out to kill their customers, if only because corpses don't spend money. If Americans want meals free of trans fats, companies will give it to them. Just this month, Wendy's announced it would stop using partially hydrogenated oils in its french fries. Frito-Lay, Kraft, and Kellogg have also announced plans to reduce or eliminate trans fat from a variety of products.

KFC, however, says it hasn't found another oil that produces as good a taste. In a competitive market, consumers can make their own choices and live with the consequences.

Most of them are smart enough to figure out the obvious: Though eating at KFC every day might shorten your life expectancy, the health dangers of an occasional Extra Crispy drumstick are anywhere from negligible to nonexistent. But letting CSPI decide what's best for all of us? Now, that's risky.


Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • healthscarequotes||

    "Editor's Note: Steve Chapman is on vacation."

    i assume this when reading any steve chapman article.

  • Johnny Longtorso||

    We must have a global governing body to eliminate trans fat. The Science Is Settled.

  • ed||

    The following column was originally published in June 2006

    The American People™ demand an Endangered Foods Act. How many of our favorite meals have become extinct since 2006? They are disappearing at an unprecedented rate. It's time for Congress to pass this vital legislation.

  • Johnny Longtorso||

    Where's our ClimateGate thread?

  • Warty||

    This is why I keep a can of bacon grease. Goddamn, I make good grilled cheese.

  • Muslims in the Public Interest||

    Pigs are unclean, infidel. You will be destroyed.

  • ||

    I have like 7 different types of frozen fat. People need to understand that when you need duck fat, it's easier to just have on hand.

  • Warty||

    I've never been able to taste any difference between duck fat and lard. As far as I can tell, the only difference is that one horrifies yuppies and one makes them feel like gourmets.

  • ||

    It's not my fault your tongue is retarded.


    and likewise it's not anyones' fault you're retarded...

  • Edwin||

    Actually, yuppies - at least the "foody" kind - aren't averse to lard. They even sell "gourmet" lard on the internet at fine food stores - and yes lard can be "gourmet", because the stuff you buy at the supermarket is for baking so has been purified to remove the pork-y taste. But sometimes you want that meaty taste in food, specifically when you are NOT baking, i.e. making savory food or main dishes

  • ed||

    I have like 7 different types of frozen fat

    You and Ted Williams.

  • Ratko||

    "Cardiovascular health is a complicated product of many factors, including genes, exercise, smoking, alcohol use, body weight, overall diet, and—maybe—trans fat."

    -The seven sides of the healthy heart septagon, take any single side away (can't have a healthy cardiovascular system if you have no genes for example) and the whole thing collapses.

    The above septagon may only exist in imagination, which makes it equally credible as many "experts" and their so called "science".

  • ||

    Use healthy saturated fat from animals.

  • mr simple||

    This article is completely outdated. Everyone knows it's Kentucky Grilled Chicken now.

  • ||

    I guess that's our follow-up on the lawsuit as well.

    "Well, court says no transfat, start grilling the chicken."

  • RuPaul||

    Scientists generally agree that trans fat is not the healthiest thing to include in your diet.

    I beg to differ.

  • RuPaul||

    Darlings, here's another.

  • ||

    "Editor's Note: Steve Chapman is on vacation."

    So "on vacation" is the new euphemism for "We killed him and sold his organs to fund GOOD writing."?

    Well done, Welch. You shall be rewarded.

  • ||

    Mmm MMM! The colonel did make some good chicken in his day, but it's been fried crap since about the time they changed the name to just KFC.

  • Happy Time Flavors||

    If I were KFC, I would respond by promising that all chicken would now be fried in lard. Its transfat free, and delicious...

  • Happy Time Flavors||

    I really should read all the comments before I make one...sorry folks...

  • ||

    I was Curious what Popeye's reaction to the transfat fooferah was. Back in Oct '06 they promised a trans-fat-free biscuit, and to get their fries down to only 1g trans-fat per serving.

    No mention of what they fry their chicken in though. Point is: Popeye's WAS better, IS better, and will ALWAYS be better.

    Interesting side note on Popeye's: Founder Al Copeland died in '08 from a salivary gland tumor. Lesson Learned: don't hang out at Popeye's and drool all day, it'll kill you.

  • ||

    That's right "Curious" with a capital CUR!

  • abercrombie milano||

    My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I'm sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won't get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there's more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I'm not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It's just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight..

  • Joe||

    WTF ??

  • nike shox||

    is good


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