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Should We Listen to That French Fry Recommendation?

Fries aren't the healthiest food, but they do not act alone.
A cook prepares french fries from a fryer in the kitchen at Bolt Burgers in Washington, D.C.

A 2017 study suggests that french fries' high salt and fat content increases the risk of chronic diseases that can cause heart problems.

A Harvard University professor made headlines this week after urging Americans to spurn french fries—and ruining the lives of millions, if you believe the pushback on Twitter. Potatoes are "starch bombs," said epidemiologist and nutritionist Eric Rimm in a New York Times story. "I think it would be nice if your meal came with a side salad and six French fries."

The advice was immediately ridiculed on social media, and Rimm has since responded, saying he was merely advocating for smaller portion sizes at restaurants.

But what does the research say? Primarily, french fries are not good for you. They're not good for you when they come from McDonald's, they're not good for you slathered in chili and cheese sauce, and they're not good for you when they're curly cut. (See an experts' ranking of fries in the Times, in which poutine gets short shrift.) But that does not mean they're the worst thing you can eat or that you'll die an early death because of them, as some headlines have suggested. Perhaps most importantly, it's not entirely a fry-eater's fault if they indulge beyond Rimm's recommended six.

The Times links to a 2017 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (not by Rimm), which found that participants who ate fried potatoes two to three times a week had a "significantly higher" risk of mortality than those who did not. The study suggests that fries' high salt and fat content increases the risk of chronic diseases that can cause heart problems, but this does not apply to un-fried potatoes.

The study also acknowledges some limitations. Mainly, fries do not act alone. People who eat fries are also likely to consume other unhealthy products, such as red meat and sugary drinks. Notably, the researchers reference a 2016 study in the same journal that found no significant link between fried potatoes and cardiovascular disease, the cause of death in their own study. And while reports highlight the fact that 236 of the 4,400 participants died after eight years, the study does not imply causation.

Still, fried potatoes can do a lot of harm: Experts have linked them to an increased risk of obesity, hypertension, and diabetes. "With such an epidemic of obesity, nowadays most of us need to cut back," Lindsay Moyer, a senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told the Times.

As a way to cut back, Rimm suggests you ask your waiter how often a restaurant changes its oil, or even send extra fries back. But this rhetoric about self-control minimizes crucial social factors. Research shows obesity is not the result of a lack of willpower, but a combination of environmental, socioeconomic, and genetic components. Alongside a diet of processed foods, epidemiologists also blame economic growth and urbanization for our global obesity epidemic.

As the 2017 study also points out, "A lower socioeconomic status could play a role in the association between a high consumption of fried potatoes and mortality." Obesity is among the many health issues that disproportionately affect low-income Americans, according to the Food Research & Action Center. Part of this can be tied to an abundance of fast food restaurants (and a lack of healthier options) in low-income, urban neighborhoods—helped along by targeted marketing and government subsidies.

This access matters as much as a menu order. For example, state and federal policies dictate how nutrition advice gets implemented. Even big advances in public health, such as regulations requiring nutrition labeling, fail to narrow the gap between manufacturer and consumer: Law professor Andrea Freeman, who coined the term "food oppression," writes that "low-income consumers who select foods based entirely on availability and affordability derive no benefits from transparency" in packaging.

While fries' lack of nutritional value is not news to most Americans, the conversation around the recommendation—and the beating it took on Twitter—fits into a larger pattern of sensationalist media reporting on nutrition and diet in the United States. "French fries could kill you," reads one 2017 Washington Post headline.

Angela Amico, policy associate for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says reporting on fad diets and studies that employ scare tactics can create the unfortunate "perception that nutrition advice changes every day."

"I think we can all really relate to the story of going onto social media and seeing the food that we thought was good for us was [now] bad for us," she says. "It's unfortunate because I don't think it speaks to the state of nutrition science. Oftentimes you have a large body of evidence that suggests a particular finding, and it gets this really big flashy headline. But it's important to look at that within the context of the evidence."

Amico points out that the federal dietary guidelines have been mostly consistent, despite a few significant changes, such as limiting foods with trans fats—french fries included.

When you decide to eat french fries, you may be putting yourself at risk. But the suggestion to eat just six overlooks the environmental and socioeconomic factors that go into that choice.