Dunkin' Donuts, the food-on-the-go chain whose name celebrates a treat that's symbolic of unhealthy eating, is trying to refresh its image by largely eliminating trans fat across its menu — doughnuts included, Homer Simpson be damned.
Dunkin' planned to announce Monday that it's developed an alternative cooking oil and reformulated more than 50 menu items. The Canton, Mass.-based chain says its menu will be "zero grams trans fat" by Oct. 15 across its 5,400 U.S. restaurants in 34 states.
Dunkin' isn't claiming it will become "trans fat free," but does say any trans fat in foods including doughnuts, croissants, muffins and cookies will fall below half a gram per serving. Federal regulations allow food labels to say they've got zero grams of trans fat, provided levels fall below the half-a-gram threshold.
About 400 locations nationwide that took part in a four-month test already have made the switch to a new blend of palm, soybean and cottonseed oils. That includes all restaurants in New York City and Philadelphia, where municipal leaders are forcing restaurants to phase out their use of artery-clogging trans fat.
The ice cream chain Baskin-Robbins, another unit of Dunkin' Brands Inc. alongside Dunkin' Donuts, plans to be zero grams trans fat by Jan. 1.
A nutrition advocacy group welcomed Dunkin's addition to the list of restaurant chains that have recently shifted away from trans fat.
"It's good news that they're dropping most, if not quite all, trans fat," said Jeff Cronin, spokesman for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based nonprofit. "If Dunkin' Donuts can do that, anyone can."
But Cronin cautioned that when it comes to Dunkin's doughnuts, "we're still talking about a food that's mostly white flour, sugar, and fat."
Dunkin' isn't positioning its namesake product as health food — a shift that would involve more disbelief suspension than might be possible for a treat synonymous with portly, doughnut-gobbling Homer from television's "The Simpsons."
"The goal was not to make a healthy doughnut, it was really to create a doughnut that was better," said Joe Scafido, Dunkin's chief creative and innovation officer. "Certainly, we did not create a healthy doughnut."
Although its coffees are by far a bigger seller, the New England-bred, 57-year-old chain was founded on the reputation of its doughnuts. Now, Dunkin' claims to be the first major chain to introduce a zero grams trans fat doughnut, although smaller doughnut makers have already done so. Mainstream doughnut makers' products can have around 5 grams of trans fat apiece.
The main source of trans fats is partially hydrogenated oils, formed when hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oils to harden them. Evidence suggests that artificial trans fats boost "bad" cholesterol and lower "good" cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Dunkin' is ahead of Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, which has yet to roll out a zero gram trans fat doughnut but hopes to do so. Brian Little, a spokesman for the North Carolina-based chain, said, "We continue to work aggressively with outside supply partners, and our goal is to get to zero trans fatty acids while maintaining great Krispy Kreme taste."
A call seeking comment from another chain, California-based Winchell's Donut House, wasn't immediately returned.
Starbucks Corp., Dunkin's Seattle-based rival in the coffee shop niche, said in May that it would cut artificial trans fats out of food and drink by year's end in stores in the continental U.S., Alaska and Canada.
Dunkin's announcement follows about four years of research of more than 28 alternative cooking oils and proprietary blends.
This past spring, hundreds of restaurants began taking part in a test to gauge customer reaction to the blend that Dunkin' ultimately selected. Managers at participating stores were split into two groups, with one receiving conventional cooking oil, the other receiving the experimental oil, and neither group knowing which type they received. Dunkin' closely watched sales and customer response at restaurants with the experimental oil.
"We got no negative consumer feedback, and we sold 50 million doughnuts in that time," Scafido said.
Dunkin's 1,900 locations outside the U.S. are expected to begin using the new oil over the next couple years, he said.