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.

52 comments

heather g
heather g1 hours ago

Give me a few roast potatoes any day!

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JT Smith
JT Smith12 hours 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 S1 days ago

thank you for sharing

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Margie F
Margie FOURIE3 days ago

Everything in moderation.

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ERIKA S
ERIKA S3 days ago

thank you for sharing

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rosario p.
rosario p3 days 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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rosario p.
rosario p3 days ago

Acrylamide is formed from the reaction of reducing sugars - e.g., glucose or fructose- with the amino acid asparagine via the Maillard reaction, which occurs during heat processing of foods, primarily those derived from plant origin, such as potato and cereal products, above 120°C (248°F). Boiled food is completely safe. Acrylamide is a genotoxic carcinogen that causes damage to the nervous system. New European Regulatory Initiative, aimed at the hotel sector, is intended to alleviate the presence of this carcinogenic substance. It's a matter of concern. You still want to pass the ketchup ?

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GGmaSAway D
GGmaSAway D3 days ago

Fries kill you...depends on whether organic (non-GMO) potatoes or not, whether organic oil used, (not palm oil, organic or not), think using one of those sir fryers would be good. As in all thing, moderation...Never eat the fast food fries, even in moderation, as those just may kill you

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ERIKA S
ERIKA S4 days ago

thank you for sharing

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Elaine W
Elaine W4 days ago

Probably won't show up on death certificate, but better things to eat are available.

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