In a few of my previous posts and in my most recent book I have confessed that my absolute favorite can’t-live-without splurge food is French fries. But not just any old fries will do—they have to be fresh, hand cut potatoes (preferably skin-on), fried in a pure, liquid vegetable oil, like peanut or olive.
Every once in a while a friend or client will ask me, “Really, you eat French fries?” But I’ve always maintained that they’re not so terrible. My favorite fries have two to three real food ingredients: whole potatoes, pure, liquid plant-based oil (not the partially hydrogenated stuff) and some sort of seasoning, like rosemary, chipotle, or a dash of sea salt. Compared to a highly processed treat made from artificial additives and a laundry list of ingredients nobody can pronounce, French fries, or even potato chips made this way, aren’t nutritional scoundrels.
In fact, a new study published in the British Medical Journal looked at the cooking methods of over 40,000 Spanish adults ages 29 to 69 over an 11-year period. None of the participants had heart disease at the start of the study, and over time no link was found between fried food consumption and the risk of heart disease or death. However, in Spain and other Mediterranean countries liquid olive and sunflower oils are the most commonly used fats for frying, not the solid man-made trans fat often used in the U.S. On average the people in this study consumed about five ounces of fried food a day, mostly cooked in olive oil (62%) as well as sunflower and other vegetable oils.
Some people think you can’t fry with olive oil, but according to the International Olive Council olive oil stands up well to frying because its smoke point of 210 C is well above 180 C, the ideal temperature for frying food (and I’ve enjoyed some fantastic fries cooked in ‘liquid gold,’ as some call it, at restaurants in the U.S. and in the Mediterranean).
Now to be fair, it’s not all good news. Heating starchy foods to high temperatures, through baking, toasting, roasting and frying, does increase the formation of a substance called acrylamide, which has been linked to an increased risk of both heart disease and cancer, but there are ways to reduce it. One study found that pre-soaking potatoes for 30 minutes slashed acrylamide levels by up to 38% while soaking them for two hours reduced acrylamide by 48%. Another study concluded that the addition of rosemary to dough prior to baking reduced acrylamide by up to 60%. Consuming cooked starchy foods with veggies, especially cruciferous ones like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, can also reduce the effects.
Bottom line, I’m certainly not advocating buying a deep fryer, eating fried foods regularly, or even eating them at all. But if, like me, you don’t want to go through life never eating another French fry stick to these five rules when a craving strikes:
• Limit fries to an occasional splurge
• Keep it real—seek out fries made the old fashioned way, with ingredients from Mother Nature
• Balance them out with fresh herbs and produce
• Limit your intake of carbs and fat in other parts of your meal
• Bump up your activity a bit
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.