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Trans-Fatty Acid, Carcinogens: Want That With Fries?

July 22, 2002|LINDA MARSA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

French fries are one of America's favorite fast foods, and it's easy to see why. When they're made correctly--flash fried to perfection, not too crunchy, not too soggy, with a dash of salt and a dollop of ketchup on the side--they're sheer heaven.

Each year, in fact, the typical American consumes more than 57 pounds of frozen potatoes (almost all of which are French fries), according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture; 90% of those fries are bought at fast-food restaurants. This translates to, on average, about four servings of fries a week. At 220 calories and 9 grams of fat per 2 1/2-ounce serving, which is about the size of a computer mouse, they can hardly be classified as a health food.

Most people, of course, realize that something this sublimely delicious can't be very nutritious. We've known for years that soaking potatoes in hot oil can spike levels of artery-clogging cholesterol--and all that salt isn't healthy either, especially for those with high blood pressure. Now comes evidence that fries are loaded with a chemical suspected of causing cancer--and the increasing understanding of how calorie-laden carbs can pile on more pounds, making people more prone to diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Potatoes are basically a starch, which the body converts into sugar. Since starch is a complex carbohydrate, it'll take the edge off your hunger longer than, say, a candy bar, which gives you a fast sugar rush, because it is digested more slowly. But if you're overweight already, "French fries will contribute to sugar overload and the wear and tear on your pancreas," says Joan Carter, a dietitian at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Granted, the lowly potato, which is classified as a vegetable, is a good source of fiber and contains about 25% of our minimum daily requirement of potassium. It also has trace amounts of calcium, vitamin C and other minerals. "But it isn't much of a nutritional powerhouse otherwise, especially when you remove the peel," Carter says.

The real problem, though, is that virtually all fast-food fries are made using hydrogenated vegetable oils, which contain trans-fatty acids. A report released earlier this month by the National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine indicated that trans fats promote heart disease by boosting levels of LDL, or bad, cholesterol, and lowering HDL, or good, cholesterol. They concluded that the only safe intake of trans fats was "zero"--which is considerably less than the 3.8 grams of trans fats contained in 3.5 ounce serving of French fries.

And in women, the risk of Type 2 diabetes rises by 39% when caloric intake of trans-fatty acids swells by only 2%, according to a 2001 Harvard study. "Anything that contains hydrogenated fat is really bad news," says Randi Konikoff, a dietitian at Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy in Boston.

Though French fries satisfy our cravings for fat and salt--and fast-food portions are getting bigger, so you feel like you're getting a lot of bang for your buck--they're no bargain, calorie-wise. A super-sized portion of fries, which is almost triple the normal serving, contains 610 calories and 29 grams of fat, which is about a third of the recommended daily intake of calories and fat for an average adult female. "Serving sizes can be deceptive, so you end up consuming many more calories than you realize," says Bettye Nowlin, a dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Assn. in Chicago.

If all this isn't bad enough, this past April, Swedish researchers announced that cooking starchy foods such as potato chips and French fries at high temperatures triggers the formation of acrylamide, a suspected human carcinogen that causes cancer in animals. More recent tests by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer group, revealed that a small order of McDonald's French fries contained 250 times the levels of acrylamide permitted in an 8-ounce glass of water by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "We've estimated that acrylamides probably cause several thousand cancers a year," says Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the CSPI.

Still, the link between acrylamides and human cancers is unproved. "Until we have more data, people shouldn't make major lifestyle changes because of the acrylamide issue," says Dr. Dennis Bier, director of the Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine.

In the meantime, moderation is key. There's nothing inherently wrong with French fries, Carter says. "But they should be an occasional treat, not a dietary staple."

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What's in a Fry?

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Restaurant Serving Size Calories Fat Content Wendy's 89.6 grams 250 11 grams McDonald's 68 grams 210 10 grams Burger King 74 grams 230 11 grams

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