Extreme Makeover: French Fry Edition
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then it’s no surprise to me that some consumers think French fried potatoes are a source of unhealthy fats. What can you expect when images of French fries are so widely used in nutrition broadcasts about trans fatty acids and saturated fats, even though they are not a major source of either one?
It’s time to set the record straight.
What all those pictures of crispy French fried potatoes don’t reveal is the big makeover they have undergone in the last eight years. Since 2007, potato manufacturers have dramatically improved the fatty acid profile of their products to virtually eliminate trans fats from processed potatoes without increasing their saturated fat content. The oils now used to cook French fries, including those from quick serve restaurants, are predominantly trans fat-free vegetable oils that primarily contain mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Frozen potato products sold in grocery stores have also been reformulated so that the vast majority of them qualify for a zero trans fat claim. These changes have been documented in several independent studies (1-3), but that isn't the message you get when French fries are depicted in the news.
The benefits of the changes in the fat content of processed potatoes are documented in the May 2015 Advances in Nutrition supplement “Fats and Oils: Where Food Function Meets Health,” a collection of ten papers that explores the state of the science on dietary fats in supporting a healthy, well-balanced diet (4). An analysis of National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data found that intakes of trans and saturated fats from French fried potatoes decreased significantly between 2005-2006 and 2009-2010 among children, adolescents, and adults (5). NHANES data also found that French fried potatoes are now a significant source of desirable fats in the diet, including oleic acid—the monounsaturated fat found in olive oil.
Since the significant improvements in the fat profile of potato products were made by the potato industry without compromising their taste, quality, or affordability, this misrepresentation of French fries is undeserved.
Another part of the story that those portrayals of French fried potatoes don’t get right is their nutrient content. The first thing they miss is that every fresh potato starts out as a fat-free, cholesterol-free, and sodium-free food. It’s how we prepare and serve them that can change that.
Pictures of processed potatoes also don’t let consumers know that they are an important source of potassium and dietary fiber—two nutrients of concern in the diets of nearly all Americans (6). A small serving of French fried potatoes provides 14% and 10% of the Daily Value for potassium and dietary fiber, respectively, for which 97% and 95% of Americans are not meeting recommended intake levels (7).
So the next time you see a mouthwatering image of French fried potatoes, I hope you’ll be thinking about all the ways you can make them a part of your healthy, well-balanced diet!
(1) Otite FO, Jacobson MF, Dahmubed A, Mozaffarian D. Trends in Trans Fatty Acids: Reformulations of US Supermarket and Brand Name Foods from 2007 through 2011. Prev Chronic Dis 2013 May 23;10:E85. DOI: 10.5888/pcd10.120198.
(2) Doell D, Folmer D, Lee H, Honigfort M, Carberry S. Updated Estimate of Trans Fat Intake by the US Population. Food Addit Contam Part A Chem Anal Control Expo Risk Assess 2012;29(6):861-874. DOI: 10.1080/19440049.2012.664570.
(3) Tyburczy C, Delmonte P, Fardin-Kia AR, Mossoba MM, Kramer JK, Rader JI. Profile of Trans Fatty Acids (FAs) Including Trans Polyunsaturated FAs in Representative Fast Food Samples. J Agric Food Chem 2012 May 9;60(18):4567-4577. DOI: 10.1021/jf300585s.
(4) Supplement—Fats and Oils: Where Food Function Meets Health. Adv Nutr 2015 May;6(Suppl):286S-382S.
(5) Storey ML, Anderson PA. Contributions of White Vegetables to Nutrient Intake: NHANES 2009-2010. Adv Nutr 2013 May 1;4(3):335S-344S. DOI: 10.3945/an.112.003541.
(6) U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. 7th ed. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office; December 2010. Accessed from: http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/sites/default/files/dietary_guidelines_for_americans/PolicyDoc.pdf.
(7) U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 25, 2012. Accessed from: http://www.rrru.ars.usda.gov/Research/Docs.htm?docid=23635.