Big Chicken Chain Still Using Partially Hydrogenated Oil, Despite Increased Risk of Heart Disease

Long after McDonald's, Burger King, Starbucks, KFC, and most other chains abandoned partially hydrogenated oil, Church's Chicken is still using the discredited ingredient, giving its meals dangerously high levels of artificial trans fat.

Like saturated fats, the artificial trans fat in partially hydrogenated oil raises one's LDL, or "bad" cholesterol—the kind of cholesterol that promotes heart disease. But unlike saturated fats, artificial trans fat lowers one's HDL, the "good" kind of cholesterol that reduces risk of heart disease. The Institute of Medicine recommends consuming as little as possible, and the American Heart Association recommends limiting trans fat to a maximum of two grams per day. In 2004, the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest urged the Food and Drug Administration to ban partially hydrogenated oil.

"Fried chicken may never be a health food, but fry it in partially hydrogenated oil and you've basically weaponized it," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "At this point, Church's is standing almost alone in the chain restaurant world, while its responsible competitors, such as KFC, have eliminated artificial trans fat."

Church's uses a trans-fat-free frying oil in California, New York City, and other jurisdictions where the use of artificial trans fat is curbed by law or local regulation. Church's told CSPI that company-owned outlets use trans-fat-free oils everywhere, but that franchisee-owned stores (the majority of outlets) have the option of using artificial trans fat. At one of those outlets, according to Church's nutrition information, it's easy to get five, 10, or even 15 grams of trans fat in a typical meal. A meal containing a Spicy Leg, a Spicy Thigh, and a Honey-Butter Biscuit has 10 grams of trans fat. An order of Boneless Wings with Sauce has 12 grams of trans fat—about a week's worth. A hungry diner who orders the Number 2 combo with a Spicy Wing, Spicy Thigh, Spicy Breast, French Fries, and a Honey-Butter Biscuit would get 17 grams of trans fat—eight times as much the AHA's recommended daily maximum. (That meal also has 1,810 calories, 25 grams of saturated fat, and 3,690 milligrams of sodium.)

In 2007, Church's told CSPI that it planned to switch to trans-fat-free ingredients by the end of that year or by early 2008, but that change has not been implemented chain-wide.

Besides asking the FDA to ban partially hydrogenated oils, CSPI has actively encouraged food companies to move away from artificial trans fat. It sued Burger King and KFC, accelerating those chains' switch to healthier oils. In 2006, news of a potential CSPI lawsuit helped spur Starbucks to reformulate its pastries. And just last month, after CSPI criticized one of its offerings, the Long John Silver's chain announced that it will transition to trans-fat-free cooking oils at all of its outlets by the end of 2013. The FDA could and should solve the problem of artificial trans fat once and for all, CSPI says, by acting on the petition the group filed with the agency in 2004.

"Church's reckless marketing of foods with trans fat shows contempt for, and needlessly endangers, its customers wherever trans fat is not limited by law," Jacobson wrote today to Jim Hyatt, CEO of Cajun Operating Company, Church's corporate parent.

Church's, based in Georgia, has about $1 billion in annual sales from 1,700 locations in 25 countries.

Among other chains specializing in fried chicken, Chick-Fil-A, fries in peanut oil. Popeyes fries in a combination of beef tallow, partially hydrogenated beef tallow, and partially hydrogenated soybean oil. While its trans fat levels are generally lower than Church's, its chicken tends to have more saturated fat thanks to the beef tallow.