7/9 experts say no.
French fries may seem the least of all evils when perusing a bar food menu. Potatoes are a health food, and what’s a French fry but a potato heated with a little oil? A record number of experts weighed in on this one—we didn't want to take no for an answer—but regretfully, 7 out of the total 9 give French fries a big thumbs down.
For starters, fries are nutritionally unrecognizable from a spud, says Jonathan Bonnet, MD, a family medicine resident physician at Duke University. “They involve frying, salting, and removing one of the healthiest parts of the potato: the skin, where many of the nutrients and fiber are found,” he says. “The fry you eat is much different than the potato from which it came"—a scary thought, considering that by 15-18 months of age, French fries are the number-one vegetable consumed by toddlers.
Many of those come from a drive-thru. A medium order of fries has 365 calories along with 17 grams of fat, a full 26% of your daily value. Sodium clocks in at 246 mg, or 10% of the upper limit you should eat in a day. Sugar and trans fat may even make appearances in small quantities. “Here we have an extremely starchy vegetable dipped in a fryer that then loads on the unhealthy fat, and what you have left is a food that has no nutritional redeeming value in it at all,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, RD, manager of wellness nutrition services at Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute.
What's more, French fries are often the super-fatty side dish to a burger—and both are often used as vehicles for things like sugar-laced ketchup and fatty mayo, says David Katz, MD, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. Things escalate quickly from there. “Let’s face it: it is very hard to stop eating these things,” says Katz. Foods high in fat and refined carbohydrates are likely to be addictive, found one study.
On a much stranger note, French fries may mess with your...eyes? Chung-Jung Chiu, PhD, a scientist at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University found a link between popular Western-diet foods—including French fries—and age-related macular degeneration. “When people are older, they become even more vulnerable to these dietary insults,” he says.
All of which makes a compelling case for fries as a selective treat, says Alice Lichtenstein, director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts University.
Nearly half of the experts we talked to warned about the carcinogen acrylamide, a chemical that forms in some foods when they're cooked at high temperatures by frying, roasting or baking. To make acrylamide, a food needs sugars, an amino acid called asparagine and hot temperatures—all of which are involved in the making of the fry. Along with potato chips, it's the most often-cited source of dietary acrylamide.
It's not yet definitive what acrylamide means for human health, but the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) just released its scientific two cents, saying that acrylamide “potentially increases the risk of developing cancer for consumers in all age groups.” The Joint Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives has named acrylamide a human health concern in the past and called for more studies. “At very low concentrations, it will accumulate during the years of childhood and adolescence and will contribute to serious diseases, including cancer,” says Allal Ouhtit, professor at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman and author of a recent review on acrylamide. You should limit your intake of French fries, says Eric Morrissette, spokesperson for Health Canada, but eating them occasionally isn’t likely to be a health concern.
One way to cut down on the toxin is to cook fries for less time. “When the product is overdone—beyond the ‘golden yellow’—the amount of acrylamide in French fries increase exponentially,” says Vincenzo Fogliano, chair of food quality and design group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. People who eat a diet high in acrylamide may have a slightly increased risk of cancer, he says, but if fries are prepped in good oil that hasn't been reheated, cooked for not-too-long and naked of mayo and ketchup, they’re a-ok. “French fries per se are not that bad as people think,” he says.
So agrees Steve Elmore, PhD, senior research fellow in the department of food & nutritional sciences at the University of Reading in the UK. “They are delicious, natural and like most foods, harmless in moderation,” Elmore says. He’s researched acrylamide since 2002, but doesn't think there's enough evidence to prove that it causes cancer in humans. He does have a French fry preference, however: thick-cut over thin-cut, which yields a lower fry-to-oil ratio.
For those of us with a French fry fetish, it's tough news to hear. But on the plus side, any food this bad for you must taste oh-so-good—a fact you'll savor when you sparingly treat yourself to a small order of fries.