5 Myths About Fried Foods

It's Not the Monster They Say It Is

If any man, before walking the "green mile," orders something other than fried chicken for his last meal... well, I call that man a fool and think him deserving of his fate while smiling over the irony of him being fried in an electric chair.

That about sums up how highly I feel about fried chicken, or for that matter, pretty much anything that's fried because foods just taste better when they come out of a sizzling cast-iron pan.

Still, I can't help but feeling a little uncomfortable with fried food because I'm a nutrition guy and eating it makes me feel like a clergyman who just spent Sunday afternoon cruising Pornhub.

But is my guilt justified? What is it about eating fried foods that still makes health-conscious people feel like hypocrites? We know, or at least we think we know, all the bad attributes of fried foods, but are those fears warranted? Do fried foods have any healthy attributes at all?

Let's look at five fried-food bugaboos and see if we can stick a fork in them:

A recent Chinese study (a pooled data analysis) of 562,445 Chinese men and women concluded that there's a linear association between fried food consumption and big-time cardiovascular events. They found that for every 114-gram (about the size of a medium fry at McDonald's) weekly serving of fried food, the risks for heart disease or heart failure increased 3%, 2%, and 12%.

Good Lord, if that's true, you could go to the state fair, eat a deep-fried White Castle burger and some fried pig chuckles as your main course, top it off with a deep-fried bacon-covered cinnamon roll for dessert, and have a 133% chance of being dead by Tuesday.

Looked at a different way, those in the highest category of fried food consumption, when compared to those in the lowest category, had a 28% increased risk of major cardiovascular events; a 22% heightened risk of coronary heart disease; and a 37% increased risk of heart failure.

So yeah, if one were to take all that at face value, it'd probably be a cold day in Qinhuangdao before you dared eat anything crispy again. Once you dig a little, though, the results get murky. For one thing, fried foods generally contain a lot of calories because they absorb a lot of the oil they're cooked in, which can lead to obesity and that's a heart risk all on its lonesome.

Secondly, fried foods are often slid down the gullet with the help of sugary soft drinks, which don't rank high on anyone's list of healthy habits and might themselves contribute to heart problems in the long run.

Fried foods also produce a lot of chemical byproducts that promote inflammation. Probably the most important factor, though, is that fried foods, at least commercially fried foods, often contain trans fats, which are created by adding hydrogen to vegetable oils to make them more solid (which makes it so you can use them again and again).

The trouble is, they can cause a worrisome rise in low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and an equally troubling decrease in high-density lipoprotein cholesterol while providing no benefits to human health at all.

Thankfully, the FDA Jorah Mormont-ed trans fats. Sort of. They were officially banned in 2015 but the agency extended the time frame for industry to stop manufacturing them until 2019 and allowed until January 1st, 2021, for the products to wend themselves through the marketplace.

There's a legal loophole, though. If a product has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, it doesn't have to be listed on the label. Okay, but if you eat several servings of such foods a day, you could easily surpass the recommended limit, which is a paltry 2 grams. Do it often enough and your heart could start acting like that sump pump with the rat stuck in it.

Bottom Line

The negative association between fried foods and cardiovascular disease has largely to do with trans fats. Avoid them and you eliminate a great deal of the risk.

Oh, one more thing. Many nutritionists claim that high-cooking temperatures causes the trans fat content of vegetable oils (including olive oil) to rise. While theoretically possible, none of the studies I looked at found any worthwhile evidence of that.

Acrylamides are allegedly carcinogenic compounds that form when you fry (or bake) starchy foods. They're formed when high heat causes sugars to unite with the amino acid asparagine. Foods like French fries, potato chips, and toast are particularly vulnerable to this process.

Truth be told, scientists aren't even sure that acrylamides cause cancer in anything other than rats, but hey, they have to be careful just in case. The "good" thing about acrylamides is that you can pretty much tell when your French fries are chock-full of them by their color.

If they're dark brown, turn them down. Same thing with potato chips, toast, English Muffins, or even the Pepperidge Farm rolls from the oven. In fact, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) urges you to "go for gold" when preparing starchy foods, meaning you should cook them until they achieve a golden color instead of a brown or black one.

Bottom Line

Gently cook your French fries under a 40-watt light bulb until they turn from white to off-white. No, no, you don't need to go to that kind of extreme. Still, you should refrain from frying (or toasting or baking, either) your food until it looks like the marshmallow you dropped into the fire at that wilderness camp for troubled teens. Instead, "go for the gold."

Another option is air frying, which has been shown to reduce acrylamide formation in French fries by 90%.

Olive Oil

We used to think that the "smoke point" of cooking oils was a big deal. If an oil started smoking at a relatively low temp, it meant that it had a comparatively large amount of free fatty acids. However, since the free fatty acid content of oils is usually less than 1% of the total oil, we now consider smoke point to be a poor indicator of the ability of a fat or oil to withstand heat.

What's of more concern is how using the wrong kind of cooking oil can lead to the production of 4-hydroxynonenal (HNE), which has been implicated in cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even influencing factors that affect the life and death of cells.

HNEs are created when highly unsaturated oils like grapeseed, safflower, sunflower, and rice bran oil are heated, but not necessarily to their smoke point. To make matters worse, you can't really tell when HNE is being formed as it's odorless, flavorless, and invisible.

That's why we need to fry with oils with a low level of polyunsaturated fatty acids. Enter, or re-enter, an old favorite, one that's previously been judged to be too "delicate" for frying: extra virgin olive oil (EVOO).

Research has actually shown that EVOO produces far fewer HNE or other harmful compounds. It also shows an admirable resistance to oxidation. In fact, it's the most healthful oil to fry/cook in. Coconut oil takes a distant second, followed by avocado oil.

Bottom Line

When sautéing or frying, choose extra-virgin olive oil, but if you want to save your expensive EVOO for drizzling atop your food, opt for coconut oil.

Frying has long been thought to destroy many of the antioxidants and polyphenols in vegetables. In particular, it was thought that frying destroyed vitamins C and E, along with phytochemicals like beta-carotene. To test the notion, Aussie scientists took potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, and pumpkin and prepared them in four different ways:

  • Deep frying in extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)
  • Sautéing them in EVOO
  • Boiled in EVOO and water
  • Boiled in water

The scientists then matched the pre- and post-cooking levels of fat, moisture, total phenols, and 18 specific phenolic compounds, as well as antioxidant capability. Deep frying and sautéing, of course, increased the fat content of the vegetables (because they absorbed some of the EVOO), whereas both types of boiling reduced it. No surprises there.

However, deep frying and sautéing the vegetables in EVOO increased the number and/or level of phenolics in them. The vegetables naturally picked up phenols like oleuropein, pinoresinol, hydroxytyrosol, and tyrosol from the olive oil, but deep frying and sautéing also increased the level of particular intrinsic vegetable phenolics such as chorlogenic acid and rutin.

Boiling, however, reduced the number and level of phenolics. None of the cooking methods reduced the antioxidant activity of the vegetables.

Bottom Line

Although the study used potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, and pumpkin, there's no reason to think you can't deep-fry or sauté other vegetables to increase their phenolic content, too.

There's probably nothing inherent about meat itself that might cause cancer. However, when you fry meat, you're possibly entering a whole other carcinogenic universe.

Subjecting to high temperatures in general causes various chemical demons to emerge. High temperature grilling, frying, or broiling leads to the production of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and acrylamides. Likewise, if you cook outdoors, combusting wood, gas, or charcoal emits polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which take up residence in your pork chop. All three are known carcinogens.

So here's the problem with these chemicals: They damage the lining of the bowel so cells have to replicate more than usual in order to heal, and these extra replications increase the chance of errors in DNA, which is often the first step in developing cancer.

It all comes down to the degree of carcinogenicity, the length of exposure to said carcinogen, the number of exposures to it, and how adept your immune system is at handling any mutations that might arise from the carcinogen.

IF it's true that frying and other methods of high-heat cooking are the cause of many, if not all of the carcinogens found in meats, there are plenty of things we can do to limit our exposure to them:

  1. Regardless of how you're about to prepare your meat, let it sit out for a while so that it reaches room temperature. The idea here is to limit the exposure of the meat to heat, so taking a frigid cut straight out of the fridge and slapping it on the grill would take all that much longer to cook.
  2. To further reduce the time the meat spends exposed to the frying pan or high heat in general, consider baking or microwaving the meat a bit first before exposing it to the frying pan or barbecue.
  3. If, despite your efforts, any of the meat appears burnt or charred, cut it off before eating.

Bottom Line

The days of charred steaks, burgers, chicken wings, and hot dogs are over. Follow the low-heat protocol I listed or, alternately, you could do what physicists say is possible and "fry" your meat high-altitude style. Just drop a steak from a height of 250 kilometers. A steak would approach a speed of about mach 6 before hitting the ground, which would nicely sear the outside while leaving the interior pretty rare... or is that too much trouble?

  1. Qin P et al. Fried-food consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality: a meta-analysis of observational studies. Heart. 2021 Oct;107(19):1567-1575. PubMed.
  2. Ramírez-Anaya JDP et al. Phenols and the antioxidant capacity of Mediterranean vegetables prepared with extra virgin olive oil using different domestic cooking techniques. Food Chem. 2015 Dec 1;188:430-8. PubMed.
  3. Guillaume C et al. Evaluation of Chemical and Physical Changes in Different Commercial Oils During Heating. Acta Scientific Nutritional Health. 2018 JUN;2(6).
  4. Csala M et al. On the role of 4-hydroxynoneal in health and disease. Biochim Biophys Acta. 2015 May;1852(5):826-38. PubMed.