French fries can be high in calories, fat and low in nutritional value especially compared to other vegetables. If they are cooked at high temperatures, they may be a potential source of carcinogen acrylamide, which is a probable human carcinogen.
French fries are a beloved food for many around in world especially in the US. Potatoes may have first originated in Peru and Bolivia and were introduced to Spanish explorers in the 1500’s. The love of potatoes spread across Europe and the US with many countries relying on potato crops as a main source of farming.
In fact, potatoes are the lead vegetable crop in the US, and over 50% of potatoes are sold to processers to make French fries, chips or other processed potato products (1).
The increase in popularity of French fries happened in the 1950’s with the increase of convenience, processed potato foods available.
Commercially made French fries became the staple for side items at fast food restaurants, and many Americans continue to eat French fries while eating out or at home.
The potato itself is actually quite nutritious. Potatoes are a source of vitamin C, potassium, fiber, B vitamins and magnesium.
How you prepare a potato can drastically influence the nutritional value and glycemic load. While French fries, especially commercially processed fries, are not considered a “good for you” food, they can fit in a healthy, balanced diet as an occasional food.
There are also ways to increase the nutritional value of fries when you make them at home.
Nutrition in French fries
Nutrition in French fries can vary depending on the type and quality of the cooking oil and if fresh potatoes are used or processed fries.
In general, most fast food restaurants use processed, frozen fries that are heated in oil. The absorption of oil during frying increases the calorie and fat content of the potato.
This is why French fries are higher in calories and fat compared to baked or mashed potatoes. Time in the hot oil can also lower the vitamin content in the potatoes.
A medium sized McDonald’s® French fry (2) provides about 340 calories, 16 grams of fat (24% DV), 44 grams of carbohydrate (15% DV), 4 grams of fiber (15% DV), 4 grams of protein and 20% DV vitamin C.
If you pair a standard cheeseburger with the medium fry, the calorie content of the meal jumps up to 630 calories and 28 grams of fat (42% DV).
Compared to other vegetables, French fries are high in calories and lower in nutrients. Even though they do provide some vitamin C and fiber, eating other vegetables will provide these nutrients with less added fat.
Fresh Fries are may not be good for you because of acrylamide
Another concern why French fries may not be good for you is they can be a potential source of acrylamide.
Acrylamide is a carcinogen that can be found in starchy foods that have high temperature cooking. Lab and human studies with acrylamide and cancer risk are mixed, and more research is needed to further understand how acrylamide from foods may influence cancer risk.
However, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) suggests acrylamide is a probable human carcinogen (3).
While the amount of acrylamide in French fries and other foods is not exactly known, if you want to lower your exposure to acrylamide, limit your intake of French fries, potato chips, toast, breakfast cereals and commercially made snacks.
Fried foods, type 2 diabetes and heart disease risk
A study from Harvard School of Public Health (4) examined data from more than 100,000 men and women over 25 years.
Researchers found an association between eating fried foods and risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease and that eating fried food even just one time per week increased risk for both type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
People who ate fried foods between 4-6 times per week had almost 40% increased risk for type 2 diabetes.
A 2015 study (5) also concluded there was a positive association of fried food intake and risk for heart failure.
Why are fried foods associated with heart disease risk? The more cooking oil gets used, the higher the degradation of the oil and more oil can get absorbed into the food. This in turn can contribute to risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
French fries and mortality risk
Can eating French fries influence your mortality?
According to a 2017 study (6), frequent consumption of fried potatoes was associated with an increased mortality risk. However, overall consumption of potatoes was not associated with increased mortality risk.
The difference on health from how a potato is prepared appears to influence the effect it can have the body. Fried potatoes affect the body differently than other cooking methods.
More research is needed to clarify how fried potatoes influence mortality risk. Researchers found eating fried potatoes 2-3 times per week was associated with an increased risk for mortality.
Eating less than this amount may not drastically influence mortality risk. It may also be what else you are eating with French fries that increases risk for mortality; people tend to eat other fried or heavy foods with French fries.
French fries and macular degeneration risk
A 2014 study (7) compared an Oriental diet high in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and seafood compared with a Western diet high in red, processed meat, dairy, French fries and refined grains and the association both diets had on age related macular degeneration.
Researchers found diet pattern was significantly associated with risk for age related macular degeneration with Western diet higher risk compared to Oriental diet.
Eating French fries won’t necessarily increase risk for macular degeneration,but eating them frequently as part of a Western diet may impact risk for many chronic diseases.
Conclusion: Are French fries good for you?
French fries can be high in calories, fat and low in nutritional value especially compared to other vegetables. If they are cooked at high temperatures, they may be a potential source of carcinogen acrylamide.
French fries are often accompanied with other higher calorie, low nutrient foods which is why they have been associated with negative health outcomes.
Some studies have found an association between French fry or friend potato products and increased risk for certain chronic diseases. Therefore, limiting intake of French fries is recommended.
Making French fries at home can lower the calorie content and increase the nutrient density.
For example, baking fries in the oven can be an easy, healthier alternative to commercially prepared fries.
You can even make parsnip, sweet potato, butternut squash, zucchini or avocado fries at home as healthy alternatives.