Healthy French Fries: Do They Exist?

by | Updated: July 9th, 2018 | Read time: 3 minutes

Gastronomically speaking, few things are more precious to the U.S. palate than french fries.

Yes, the fast-food, restaurant and bar staple may have “french” in the name, but fries are as American as apple pie. (In fact, the “french” in fries refers to the style of cut, not the country.)

By at least one estimate, the average U.S. citizen eats about 29 pounds of french fries each year.

Unfortunately, those fries – from the iconic McDonald’s variety to those you whip up in your own deep fryer — don’t love you as much as you love them.

In fact, eating too many french fries can do serious damage to both your waistline and your long-term overall health, says Nancy Farrell, a registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of Farrell Dietitian Services in Fredericksburg, Virginia. 

Many dangers of eating french fries are well-known. “Of course, the fat content is of concern,” Farrell says.

Because french fries typically are deep-fried, they are loaded with trans fats and saturated fats. Not only does consuming such fats lead to weight gain, but it also raises your risk of heart disease, stroke and type-2 diabetes. In other words, fries aren’t exactly part of a heart-healthy diet. (Not even close.)

Nutritionists and other health experts also lament that french fries have a high sodium content. Consuming too much sodium causes you to retain water and can contribute to high blood pressure and heart issues, which is why the American Heart Association recommends you reduce sodium in your diet.

Acrylamide is the enemy

One of the biggest dangers of french fries is something a little more hidden: the presence of acrylamide.

“Acrylamide is a carcinogen that is produced during the high-heat frying or baking of potatoes,” Farrell says.

The link between acrylamide and cancer has been found in studies with lab rats. The American Cancer Society says it remains unknown if this risk extends to humans.

However, the National Toxicology Program says acrylamide can be “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” In addition, the Food and Drug Administration is concerned enough that in 2013, it issued guidelines for reducing the amount of acrylamide in the diet.

How to enjoy french fries safely

If you love french fries, you don’t have to banish them from your plate. As with so many things, moderation is the key.

For example, baking fries at home allows you to make them somewhat more healthful. Farrell recommends the following preparation method:

• Slice your own store-bought potatoes
• Place the slices in a reclosable bag
• Add heart-healthy olive oil and seasonings
• Close bag and shake
• Arrange the slices on a shallow baking sheet and roast in the oven at 425 degrees for 20-25 minutes

Other tips for making fries more healthful at home include substituting whisked egg whites for oil (especially helpful for those on an oil-free diet), and skipping salt altogether when consuming the fries.

Worried that baked fries might taste too bland? Make sweet potato fries, which will be more flavorful in their natural element than standard fries — or try something entirely new by baking up parsnip fries, zucchini fries, avocado fries or carrot fries.

If you plan to eat fries in a restaurant, it can be more difficult to make the meal healthful, Farrell says.

“Quantity consumed is of great importance,” she says. “My tip (is to) always share a small serving of fries.”

Of course, skipping fries altogether remains the best way to protect your health when eating in a restaurant.

The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends asking your server if you can substitute another dish for french fries – for example, a small salad with dressing on the side.

Other good alternatives to fries include steamed vegetables and fresh fruit. Or, you could ask for a baked potato instead of having that potato turned into fries.