Will Eating French Fries Really Kill You?

Recent headlines are suggesting that, based on new research, eating fries just twice a week could literally mean an early death. How accurate are these claims?

The study these sensationalist headlines come from was recently published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. When we look at the actual title of the study, “Fried potato consumption is associated with elevated mortality: an 8-y longitudinal cohort study”, we begin to get a sense that maybe headlines like “French fries can kill you” might be an oversimplification, as well as conjure up some pretty funny imagery.

The risk posed by a diet high in fried food is not new. Scientists have been warning for decades now that diets high in fried foods tend to overlap with developing diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, heart disease and more. However, linking health outcomes to specific foods has its limitations.

So what did this study actually say? 

Researchers from the University of Padua in Italy looked at the potato eating habits of 4,440 people between the ages of 45 and 79. They also analyzed the health trends seen in the data for that sample. The researchers found that after eight years 236 participants in that study had died. A few things became apparent. 

“After adjustment for 14 potential baseline confounders, and taking those with the lowest consumption of potatoes as the reference group, participants with the highest consumption of potatoes did not show an increased risk of overall mortality,” the researchers say in the study. That means the humble spud does not appear to be a health hazard of itself. The scientists confirm: “The consumption of unfried potatoes was not associated with an increased mortality risk.”

Good news there for fans of potato based meals like stews and soups. However, the researchers did find that eating fried potatoes in any form more than twice a week appeared to double the risk of death when compared to those in the sample who did not eat any fried potatoes at all.

That finding appears quite stark, but there are some major things to think about.

First of all, we note that the researchers were looking at fried potatoes. As such, the sudden singling out of french fries for a lethal reputation may be undeserved and, at the very least, misses the point that it’s fried potatoes and not their form that appear to pose a risk. That’s not surprising given what we know about fried food. It does mean that, unfortunately, hash browns, potato chips, and arguably most delicious of all, the glorious potato wedge are also potentially problematic.

The second area to give us perspective on this study is the controls that were used. The researchers did control for age and sex among other factors, as both of these can change health risks (though we note that the overall age of the group was at the higher end of the scale). The researchers themselves note however that there are some factors this study didn’t control for. For example, obesity, physical activity, high salt consumption, lack of a varied diet are all flagged as potential driving factors that this study couldn’t assess.  

How do we square that with this research then?

Does that mean this research “failed” or is “wrong”? Not at all. The researchers have found something that is interesting in a small study that seems to be well conducted and appropriately analyzed. The problem lies in how this research is being framed in the press.

The major takeaway is: French fries themselves are not the thing that is leading to early mortality, so any headlines implying that are wrong.

What this research does suggest is that fried potato consumption might be useful as an indicator for early mortality risk because people who eat a higher diet of fried foods are probably more likely to be consuming other unhealthy foods and, potentially, not exercising like they should either. To look at the real possible impact of a diet high in potato consumption the researchers are calling for more studies with bigger samples and tighter controls. It is those studies that may be able to give us some true insight into whether high potato consumption itself could be an issue or, conversely, whether potatoes in their not-fried form might even tally with better health outcomes.

So don’t swear off the french fries just yet; eating what we fancy every now and again while maintaining a good all-around diet remains the best advice. Now someone pass the ketchup.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

56 comments

Melania Padilla
Melania Padilla3 months ago

I eat them once in a while; enjoy life!

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Jennifer H
Jennifer H4 months ago

I grew up on french fries. My dad was a meat and potato person so that was what we had! I guess I should be dead by now!

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Jetana A
Jetana A4 months ago

That's a food I ate occasionally in childhood which I haven't missed at all for 50 years. Give me a baked or boiled potato, or mashed, yum!

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ERIKA S
ERIKA SOMLAI5 months ago

thank you for sharing

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heather g
heather g5 months ago

Give me a few roast potatoes any day!

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JT Smith
JT Smith5 months ago

Eat only healthy foods, get plenty of exercise, die anyway. Life is a sexually transmitted terminal disease with a 100% fatality rate. So stop whining about deep fried shoestring potatoes.

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ERIKA S
ERIKA SOMLAI5 months ago

thank you for sharing

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Margie F
Margie F5 months ago

Everything in moderation.

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ERIKA S
ERIKA SOMLAI5 months ago

thank you for sharing

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rosario p.
rosario p.5 months ago

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2002/aug/15/food.foodanddrink - https://www.researchgate.net/publication/51848373_Acrylamide_in_Foods_A_Review_of_the_Science_and_Future_Considerations

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