You’ve heard it again and again—fried foods are bad for you. If a food is fried, you shouldn’t eat it, period.
But perhaps vilifying all fried food is not fair. After all, there’s more than one way to fry a food. So, are fried foods getting a bad rap? Are they really as horrible as everyone says? STACK investigates.
First Things First—What Exactly are you Frying?
Almost any food can be fried.
If you’re trying to figure out whether a certain fried food is a nutritional nightmare, the first question you need to ask yourself is simply, what food are you frying?
If it’s something unhealthy regardless of its preparation—such as sugary cookies, candy bars, Twinkies, etc.—you know it’s will be a poor nutritional choice when you fry it. I know it sounds obvious, but taking an unhealthy food and frying it will not magically turn it into a healthy food.
If the food is relatively healthy to begin with—like chicken, veggies or fish—how frying affects its nutrition depends on the oil and the technique you use.
What Oil are you Using?
To fry something, you need to cook it in oil. And the type of oil you use has a significant impact on the nutritional profile of the fried food. One tablespoon of oil, no matter what type, contains roughly 120 calories. It’s the fat content—not the calorie content—that can help you gauge the healthiness of a specific type of oil.
By nature, every cooking oil has fat in it. But the healthier oils are higher in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats and lower in saturated fat, while the less healthy oils are the opposite.
According to the American Heart Association, polyunsaturated fats can have a beneficial effect on your heart when eaten in place of trans fat or saturated fat. Monounsaturated fats may help with blood sugar control and can decrease your risk of heart disease by controlling your cholesterol.
It’s also important to know an oil’s “smoke point.” This is defined as the temperature “at which heated fat or oil starts to break down and burn.” This destroys positive nutrients, creates harmful substances and gives the food an unpleasant taste.
Healthy oils include grapeseed, olive and peanut oil.
Brian St. Pierre, nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition, especially likes avocado oil. He says, “Avocado oil works really well, especially when you’re pan-frying. It has a super-high smoke point, it’s loaded with heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and it doesn’t have an overly strong taste.”
Unhealthier oils include palm, cottonseed and “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oils. Hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils are typically used to give foods longer shelf lives. Also, certain restaurants use them in their fryers because they don’t need to be changed as often as healthier oils. Hydrogenated oils can wreak havoc on your cholesterol and overall health.
Coconut oil is high in saturated fat, but recent research has shown it is especially effective at improving “HDL” cholesterol, a.k.a. “good cholesterol.” Most of the studies so far have been short-term, however, so if you elect to use coconut oil in your cooking, do so sparingly.
The Cleveland Clinic has an excellent oil guide, which outlines the fat content and smoke points of over 20 different types of oils.
RELATED: Healthy Oils You’ve Never Heard Of
How is it Being Fried?
If you’re frying a relatively healthy food in a relatively healthy oil, the final step in figuring out how frying affects its nutrition is determining what technique used. Just as different oils can be used for frying, different frying techniques can be used to cook the food.
A general rule of thumb is “the less oil, the better.” If you want to employ the healthiest method of frying, use just enough oil to cook the food effectively.
Sautéing, pan-frying and stir-frying are similar frying techniques that use smalls amount of oil. Since they use small amounts of oil, but effectively cook and improve the taste of many foods, they’re a great and healthy way to fry.
Deep-frying, on the other hand, involves completely immersing the food in oil. Although this alone won’t dramatically alter a food’s nutrition more than pan- or stir-frying, the fact that most deep-fried foods are breaded or battered is the big problem. “When foods are breaded and deep-fried, that’s when you run into real issues. The combination of salt and refined carbs from the breading and the refined oils in the fryer creates a very calorie-dense product,” St. Pierre says.
The breading also soaks up oil into the food, adding more fat and calories.
It can be hard to estimate exactly how many calories and how much fat are added to a food when it’s breaded and deep-fried, but one good example is KFC’s chicken. An extra crispy chicken breast that’s been breaded and deep-fried twice has 170 more calories, 15 more grams of fat and 1.5 more grams of saturated fat than an original recipe chicken breast, which is only breaded and deep-fried once.
When people think of “fried foods,” they almost always envision foods that have been deep-fried. Potato chips, tortilla chips, buffalo wings, corn dogs, fried chicken, doughnuts, French fries, General Tso’s chicken, tater tots and wontons are all examples of popular foods that are deep-fried. A breaded deep-fried food is significantly unhealthier than a pan-fried version of the same food.
Just because a food is fried doesn’t automatically mean it’s bad for you. It depends on three factors—what you’re frying, the type of oil you use, and how you fry it.
A study conducted in Spain and published in the British Medical Journal followed 41,000 healthy adults over a 14-year period to see if there was a relationship between fried food consumption and heart disease. They found that those who consumed the most fried foods had no significant difference in the incidence of heart disease compared to the rest of the group. Pretty amazing, right? One theory is that since the Spanish typically fry their foods with either olive oil or sunflower oil—two of the healthier oils—their consumption of fried foods might not be as unhealthy a habit as a culture that deep-fries most of their fried foods.
In fact, 62 percent of the participants in the study most often used olive oil to do their frying.
Although further research is needed, this study supports the idea that all fried foods aren’t created equal. It’s also worth noting that the number one fried food consumed in this study was fish. If the number one fried food consumed had been doughnuts or corn dogs, the outcome might’ve been different, but fish is a healthy food to begin with.