Dear Doctor: Our mom, who’s running for president of the food police, just heard about a study that says any amount of fried food is basically death on a fork. Now my brothers and I are afraid we’ll never see another french fry. Please. She’s fallen for a conspiracy theory, right?
Dear Reader: You may be too young to know this, but the debate about fried foods has been raging for decades. For many of us, that means fried chicken and fish, fried seafood, potato or corn chips, doughnuts and french fries, to name just a few. Frying makes food deliciously rich and crispy, and each culture throughout the world has its own specialties that rely on the technique. And as anyone who has walked the midway of a state or county fair knows, pretty much anything (fried Oreos, fried ice cream, fried butter) is fair game for the fryer.
Unfortunately, although we humans love fried foods, they don’t return the favor. Depending on the specific study, fried foods have been linked to cardiovascular disease, elevated blood pressure, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.
Now the results of research published in January in the British Medical Journal have linked the consumption of fried foods to overall mortality, which means death from any cause. Researchers used 20 years of health data from about 106,000 women who were taking part in the Women’s Health Initiative, a long-term national health study.
For this particular research, done at the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health, scientists drew from dietary questionnaires filled out by women aged between 50 and 79. The upshot was that those who ate a single serving of fried food per day had an 8 percent higher chance of dying early as compared to those who reported that they ate no fried food. Interestingly, while the study found a correlation between fried food consumption and heart disease, it didn’t find a connection to cancer.
That said, the study has limitations. The dietary information was self-reported. So were details about smoking status, exercise habits, alcohol and drug use, and diagnoses of cardiovascular disease, cancer or diabetes, each of which can have a bearing on outcomes.
Whether the fried foods were home-cooked or commercially prepared also wasn’t known. That’s important because, unlike steaming, boiling, baking or broiling, frying is a complex cooking process. Not only does it change the food, the high heat that frying requires also alters the cooking medium itself. Commercial establishments often use oils that are high in omega-6 fats and saturated fats, none of which are part of a healthful diet. They also reuse their cooking oil, which breaks down in high heat to form unhealthful oxidation products that wind up in the food.
A similar study done in Spain, where frying took place with mainly olive or sunflower oil, did not find the same correlation between fried foods and coronary heart disease and death.
Still, there’s no getting around that fact that fried foods are significantly higher in fat, calories and often salt than foods cooked by other methods. Because fried foods are so crunchy and tasty, it’s easy to overeat. Our feeling is that rather than a regular dietary staple, fried foods should be an occasional treat.
Dr. Eve Glazier, M.D., MBA, is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health.