French fries, the scourge of nutritionists and the villain food of the film classic Super Size Me, are actually healthy for you, according to researchers from the Federico 2 University of Naples in Italy.
Doesn't that sound great now that summer's here and fish and chips on the beach is looming as an enticing prospect? "Frying is bad for us? Absolutely not!" said Professor Vincenzo Fogliano, who oversaw the study with Italian chef Giuseppe Daddio. "If it's fried in the correct way, a potato chip...can be an excellent nutritional product."
The pair arrived at this conclusion by studying the way that cooking oil – which is usually loaded with fat – is absorbed during the frying stage. Zucchini and eggplant, thought of as healthy, absorbed 30 per cent of the oil. Potatoes and pizza absorbed just five per cent.
Potatoes resisted the oil because they're full of starch, said Professor Fogliano. "A fundamental rule is that starch plays an important part in sealing the food being fried and reducing the oil absorption. The starch in potatoes....is particularly effective."
There's a caveat or two, however. "Attention must be paid to frozen or pre-fried products," said Professor Fogliano, who spoke to the Italian newspaper La Stampa. "In these cases, the quantity of food absorbed increases significantly."
Unfortunately, that describes 95 per cent of the fries and chips in Australia, said the CEO of Melbourne's Lord of the Fries restaurants, Mark Koronczyk. "This is a European article, and this is how they cook their fries in Europe," he said. Locally, "95 per cent of people selling fries use a frozen product...they're full of preservatives, they use beef tallow...they also use whey powder."
That includes all the fast food chains. Lord of the Fries are one of the few places that cook fries European-style, as per the Italian study. They even keep the skin on. "I think it's a great study, especially as we don't do frozen fries, we use fresh potatoes," said Mr Koronczyk. So few outlets in Australia used fresh potatoes as the process was labour-intensive, time-consuming and expensive.
"Our fries are the healthiest fries you can get," he said, "but I don't know if it's a healthy product."
The Dietitians Association of Australia echoed that sentiment. Spokeswoman Melanie McGrice said the only good fries were home-made fries. "Chips can be made slightly healthier if you're cooking them at home," she said. "But they're still high in fat and there's not a lot of nutrition in them." Especially, she said, if the skin was removed.
In summary: French fries are a treat food and should only be eaten in moderation, said Ms McGrice.
Ironically, even if fries are cooked the healthy way, customers will voluntarily make them unhealthy. At Flathead Fish'n'Chips in Brighton, where the chips are mostly definitely frozen in origin and not fresh, manager Mohan Vamsi said nearly all of his customers topped the chips with artery-stiffening condiments. "About 90 per cent of them like salt, and about 20 percent like vinegar," he said. "About half have sauce".
COOKING HEALTHY CHIPS
- cut directly from potatoes
- don't use frozen, pre-fried or re-fried chips
- keep the skin on
- use sunflower oil, which is low in saturated fat and high in good fats (monosaturated and polyunsaturated)