A staple in many American homes, the simple French fry is a tasty side dish that can help you to feel full. But have you ever looked at French fries calories and nutrition profile?
Whether or not French fries are good for you is a complex question. For example, if you want to know if ordering French fries in a fast food drive-thru is going to aid your health goals? Obviously, that answer is “no.”
But are there certain French fries that can be a great add-on to a healthy meal? Absolutely!
Why do French fries calories and nutrition matter? Because nearly everyone in our country is eating them. In fact, there seems to be a trend between the ages of one and two for children to begin eating fast food items, especially French fries, according to their annual checkups. (1)
If we’re feeding children still in diapers the French fries from the McDonald’s kitchen, we should know how they’re made, what’s in them and potential dangers they pose — but it’s not all bad news. You (and your child) can still enjoy French fries and know they’re part of a healthy diet.
How? Well, I’ll get to that.
What Are French fries?
Strictly speaking, French fries are sliced potato strips that are fried and usually served with a bit of salt. Their origin is debated, but it’s generally agreed that French fries were invented in America (although they’re popular in France, too!).
One theory has to do with the term “frenching” in cooking, which refers to cutting foods into lengthwise strips. Some argue that Thomas Jefferson named them “French fries” for the country where he had first been exposed to fried potatoes. (2)
Whatever the case, that three-ingredient recipe (potatoes, oil and salt) is not what most people now eat when they order French fries.
To use the most famous example, let’s look at a medium side of French fries from McDonald’s. A simple, three-ingredient recipe becomes a list of 17 ingredients, including several chemicals that are particularly concerning.
Well, at least French fries are gluten-free and dairy-free, right? They might contain some unsavory oil, but there isn’t sugar in a box of French fries. Wrong again.
The fries also contain a form of corn sugar known as dextrose, which is chemically identical to blood sugar (glucose). Dextrose is not recommended for pregnant/nursing mothers, those with liver or diabetic issues, and a number of other problems. It can cause blood sugar to quickly skyrocket and also prevent proper fat digestion.
Other ingredients include hydrogenated soybean oil (soybeans are almost always GMO as well, not to mention rich in hormone-disrupting phytoestrogens), sodium acid pyrophasphate (defined as “hazardous for ingestion” on the chemical industry’s safety data sheets) and dimethylpolysiloxane (an anti-foaming agent that’s usually found in caulking and sealants). (4)
That’s just gross.
As you can see, not all French fries calories are equally nutritious. Let’s take a look at the differences.
French Fries Calories and Nutrition Comparison
For the purposes of this comparison, we’re going to talk about the size of a medium McDonald’s French fry order, which contains 117 grams or about half a cup of potato.
I’m not a huge fan of white potatoes to begin with (because there are so many better options), but I wanted you to see the differences between what you get eating fast food French fries, cooking a similar recipe at home and then one of my favorite options, sweet potato fries.
One medium order of McDonald’s French fries (about 117 grams) contains about: (5)
- 370 French fries calories
- 45.7 grams carbohydrates
- 4.5 grams protein
- 18.9 grams fat
- 4.9 grams fiber
- 266 milligrams sodium
- 415 milligrams omega-3
- 4,961 milligrams omega-6
- 0.6 milligram vitamin B6 (30 percent DV)
- 0.4 milligram thiamine/Vitamin B1 (26 percent DV)
- 655 milligrams potassium (19 percent DV)
- 70.2 micrograms folate (18 percent DV)
- 3.2 milligrams niacin (16 percent DV)
- 154 milligrams phosphorus (15 percent DV)
- 8.5 milligrams Vitamin C (14 percent DV)
- 0.3 milligram manganese (13 percent DV)
- 37.4 milligrams magnesium (9 percent DV)
- 0.8 milligram pantothenic acid (8 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligram copper (7 percent DV)
- 1 milligram iron (6 percent DV)
Some of this actually looks impressive, but when you consider the fact that these “nutrients” come from genetically modified sources and are laced with a large number of chemicals, the picture becomes clearer.
What does it look like to make about the same amount of French fries at home with coconut oil? (As a side note, some people try pan-frying potatoes at home with olive oil, which I do not recommend, as it becomes rancid at high temperatures.)
- 193 French fries calories
- 18.4 grams carbohydrates
- 2 grams protein
- 13.6 grams fat
- 2.2 grams of fiber
- 6 milligrams sodium
- 0.8 gram sugar
- 10 milligrams omega-3
- 275 milligrams omega-6s
- 19.7 milligrams vitamin C (33 percent DV)
- 0.3 milligram vitamin B6 (15 percent DV)
- 421 milligrams potassium (12 percent DV)
- 0.2 milligram manganese (8 percent DV)
- 23 milligrams magnesium (6 percent DV)
- 57 milligrams phosphorus (6 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligram thiamine (5 percent DV)
- 1.1 milligram niacin (5 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligram copper (5 percent DV)
- 16 micrograms folate (4 percent DV)
- 0.8 milligram iron (4 percent DV)
- 12.1 milligrams choline
- 0.2 milligram betaine
Those French fries calories look a little more acceptable to me, but the starch content in white potatoes is still more than I like to see. What about my preferred option?
- 202 French fries calories
- 20.1 grams carbohydrates
- 1.6 grams protein
- 13.6 grams fat
- 3 grams fiber
- 55 milligrams sodium
- 4.1 grams sugar
- 1 milligram omega-3
- 256 milligrams omega 6
- 14,185 IU vitamin A (284 percent DV)
- 0.3 milligram manganese (13 percent DV)
- 0.2 milligram vitamin B6 (10 percent DV)
- 337 milligrams potassium (10 percent DV)
- 0.2 milligram copper (8 percent DV)
- 0.8 milligram pantothenic acid/Vitamin B5 (8 percent DV)
- 25 milligrams magnesium (6 percent DV)
- 47 milligrams phosphorus (5 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligram thiamine/Vitamin B1 (5 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligram riboflavin/vitamin B2 (4 percent DV)
- 2.4 milligrams vitamin C (4 percent DV)
Clearly, the third option is the most nutrient-dense. However, what makes them so much better is probably what they don’t contain. Are there other, hidden reasons why most French fries are bad for you?
French Fries Calories: Why You Shouldn’t Eat Most French Fries
1. Increases Cancer Risk
A little Google searching will provide you with the No. 1 reason people are concerned with commercially produced French fries: acrylamide.
This chemical found in many industrial processes like paper-making and wastewater treatment forms in some starchy foods during high-temperature cooking. It’s a relatively newly understood compound (discovered in 2002), but it seems that this high-temp cooking forces a reaction between some sugars and asparagine (an amino acid) to form acrylamide.
The worst method for cooking starches, such as white potatoes, is frying, followed by baking, broiling and roasting. When preparing foods like these, try keeping the temperature below 250 degrees Fahrenheit or boiling/steaming the potatoes to avoid acrylamide formation.
While no long-term human studies on acrylamide’s impact on cancer risk have been done, the National Cancer Institute does list acrylamide as part of a diet that most likely increases the risk of cancer. This is based on many animal studies finding a link between the two. (9, 10, 11)
Small cohort studies throughout Europe have found a potential risk of breast cancer, endometrial, ovarian and renal cell cancer when observing human subjects with high acrylamide markers. (12, 13, 14)
Another study from Taiwan found that adolescents between 13–18 who consume a lot of French fries may have already developed a cancer risk higher than the “target excess lifetime cancer risk (ELCR),” meaning the risk developed over an entire lifetime of exposure to possible carcinogens in foods and other sources. (15)
To limit your exposure to acrylamide, cut and then soak your potatoes before cooking. I recommend soaking them for two hours, if you can, which reduces acrylamide content by up to half. Rinsing for just 30 seconds can cut the amount by over 20 percent. (16)
You should also never keep raw potatoes in the fridge to reduce acrylamide consumption. Try keeping them in a cool, dark place before preparing. (17)
A 2008 Danish study also found that adding rosemary extract may reduce acrylamide content by up to 67 percent, which also suggests that using rosemary in homemade French fries recipes might help limit your risk of exposure. (18)
No one is shocked that eating frequently at McDonald’s can contribute to obesity. However, did you know that the unassuming French fries next to your Big Mac might be a factor?
One culprit in the ingredients of McDonald’s French fries includes dextrose, an added sugar. It’s estimated that Americans consume, on average, about three to four times the daily recommended values of added sugar. Weight gain is one undesirable side effect that comes as a result of eating too many added sugars.
Not surprisingly, this corn sugar the fries are soaked in is yet another way the standard American diet exposes people to genetically modified corn. Increased intake of corn products is linked to obesity, independent of gender or ethnicity. (19)
Excess sugars, such as dextrose, are stored in fat tissues when they can’t be immediately digested, leading to obesity and, sometimes, insulin resistance (and an increased risk for several conditions).
A study in Puerto Rico found that a diet high in French fries calories, meat and processed meat contributed to a high “allostatic load,” which refers to accumulated wear and tear associated with chronic stress. The same diet was also connected with higher waist circumference and elevated blood pressure. (20)
Another issue with traditional French fries from white potatoes involves the complexity of the carbohydrates they contain. White potatoes break down faster and elevate blood sugar quickly, while sweet potatoes break down slowly in the system to offer more complete nutrition.
McDonald’s fries also contain sodium acid pyrophosphate, a leavening agent that is commonly found in cheeseburgers, milk products and boxed cake mixes. Because it is absorbed as phosphorus in the body, it’s important to keep track of how much you’re consuming, as your phosphorus-to-calcium ratio should be about 1:1.
Eating French fries and other foods high in phosphorus and sodium acid pyrophosphate can potentially lead to elevated blood phosphorus levels. Too much phosphorus disrupts various functions of the body and contributes to bone loss, eventually resulting in osteoporosis. (21)
4. Laden with Carcinogenic Pesticides
McDonald’s, in particular, prides itself on using potatoes that have not been genetically modified. That might be inspiring on its own, but there have been major concerns in the last several years about the pesticides used on potatoes purchased by the fast food giant.
Minnesota seems to be one source of the most concern. The EPA estimates that up to 10 percent of agricultural pesticides drift away from the target they’re meant to spray. (22) Because of pesticide drift, residents of Minnesota have formed an anti-pesticide group known as Toxic Taters to stop what they see to be a major risk to the health of those in their communities.
Air quality tests in several Minnesota counties between 2006–2009 found that a third of samples tested positive for at least one pesticide, including chlorathalonil, pendimethalin, chlorpyrifos, PCNB and 2,4-D. (23)
To give you a brief overview of the impact of these pesticides: One is associated with neurological disruption, kidney damage and tumors. Two are considered “probable human carcinogens, with links to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and sarcoma.” (24) One has already been banned by the EPA because of health concerns before being put back on the market. One is a known endocrine disruptor and significantly interrupts thyroid function.
Perhaps the most scary pesticide used on most of the Russett Burbank potatoes that make up McDonald’s French fries is methamidophos, brand name Monitor. According to the Extension Toxicology Network, a joint project of Cornell University and three other major U.S. universities, Monitor pesticide is a Class I compound, requiring a “Danger – Poison” label whenever produced.
Current reports have not found instances of methamidophos overdose above approved EPA guidelines, but as it is “highly toxic via oral, dermal and inhalation routes” and has side effects including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, confusion, heart rate changes, convulsions, coma, cessation of breathing, reduced sperm count, low birth weights, genotoxicity (the ability to change chromosomal structure) and liver damage… I’m going to just say, “No.”
Potentially because of the simplicity of the carbohydrates in white potatoes, French fries are associated with the development of Type II diabetes.
Two studies analyzing the association between eating French fries as a substitute for complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, and diabetes found that diabetes risk increased for those eating French fries and other conventional potato dishes. These cohorts, combined, include 283,736 subjects. (25, 26)
For pregnant moms, eliminating French fries may be helpful in avoiding gestational diabetes. Particularly for women who were already overweight or obese, a 2016 study found an increased risk of gestational diabetes in women who regularly consume soft drinks and French fries calories. (27)
In addition to the one mentioned above, at least one other study found a strong correlation between consuming a lot of French fries and other white potato products with increased risk of hypertension. (28)
7. Food Addiction
A novel project was conducted in 2015 to investigate the prevalence of food addiction in 100 overweight and obese kids. Seventy-one percent of the children in the study were diagnosed with food addiction, with French fries as the fourth most frequently addictive foods discovered, only trumped by chocolate, ice cream and carbonated beverages.
Eating French fries once or twice each week increased the risk of food addiction in study participants by more than two times. (29)
8. Slow-Moving Sperm
Western dietary habits, including French fries and other fast foods, seem to be an indicator of asthenozoospermia, a condition involving slow-moving sperm. On the inverse, what the researchers referred to as a “prudent” dietary plan, involving lots of colorful vegetables, seafood, fruits, legumes, whole grains, poultry, tea, coffee, dairy and oils, did not show the same results. (30)
9. Inflammation from Poor Omega-3/Omega-6 Balance
Shrewd readers may have noticed that I included omega-3 and omega-6 content in the nutrition facts near the beginning of this article. I wanted to ensure you could see the differences in various types of French fries to be aware of the problems that can arise from an imbalance of these fatty acids.
The details of these relationships are complex, but to simplify it: Omega-3s and omega-6s both include an incredible number of benefits, but the ratio of acids is incredibly important. Americans get far too much omega-6 in their diets without getting enough omega-3s, which leads to chronic inflammation and disease. Decreasing omega-6 levels helps protect against degenerative and chronic illnesses, sometimes leading to up to a 70 percent decrease in risk of death. (31, 32)
Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids use the same conversion enzymes to be activated, so they are in competition for those enzymes. While historical norms find a 1:1 ratio, modern diets average between 10:1 and 20:1, with some individuals averaging up to 25:1.
To achieve an optimal level of omega-3s to omega-6s, it’s important to decrease your omega-6 intake to somewhere around 3 percent of your daily calories (on a 2,000-calorie diet) and consume about 0.65 grams each day of omega-3s. This achieves close to the 2.3:1 ratio that represents the top end of “optimal.”
What does this have to do with French fries? Well, French fries calories from McDonald’s contain almost five grams of omega-3s compared to 83 percent of your daily intake of omega-6s on an optimal diet. Inversely, homemade French fries or sweet potato French fries contain about 275 milligrams of omega-6s each, about 6 percent of what McDonald’s French fries have.
Since you’re probably going to eat more than just a side of French fries in one day, it’s probably best to avoid foods with that unbalanced a ratio. By keeping your ratio between 1:1 and 2.3:1, you can help avoid inflammation and reduce your overall risk for disease.
French Fries Calories: Are There Benefits of French Fries Nutrition?
I mentioned earlier that I am not a fan of white potatoes. I, as well as much of the natural health community, agree that the simple, starchy carbohydrate content of white potatoes breaks down too quickly and, therefore, doesn’t offer the kind of lasting nutrition of other potato options.
However, some studies do position white potatoes as a source of nutrition that is cost-effective, and it’s true they do contain important vitamins and minerals with a relatively low calorie count. (33)
The overwhelming consensus, however, reflects that colored potatoes offer the most broad range of health benefits. These benefits come from the antioxidant-rich vitamins and minerals that help individuals to lower their chances of developing chronic or acute diseases like high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer and neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. (34)
If you’re making homemade French fries using sweet potatoes or purple potatoes, then French fries calories can offer some great benefits. Conventional French fries, especially those sold in fast food establishments, do nothing for your health.
Healthier French Fries Recipes and Alternatives
I don’t hate all potatoes — not by a long shot. There are some great options for French fries that won’t break your nutritional bank in one sitting. For example, these sweet potato rosemary fries are incredibly easy to make and have the health benefits of both sweet potatoes and rosemary.
Really want that classic potato taste? Well, what about the colorful option of purple sweet potato French fries? Purple potatoes are full of antioxidants and known to have great benefits, such as regulation of blood pressure and insoluble fiber content.
Precautions Regarding French Fries Calories
While it is rare, potato allergy is possible for some people. Because it is a member of the Solanaceae family, the potato may cause similar allergic reactions that you may have when eating tomato, cherry, eggplant, melon, pear and other members of this food family.
Typical symptoms of potato allergy include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, itchy mouth, swollen throat, eczema, atopic dermatitis, runny nose, weepy eyes, sneezing, asthma and tight chest. (35)
Final Thoughts on French Fries Calories
- French fries from fast food establishments, such as McDonald’s or Burger King, have many more ingredients than most people would expect.
- French fries calories depend on the source, as a medium fry from a fast food chain contains 370 calories and homemade varieties hover around 200 calories in the same serving.
- Regularly eating conventional French fries is associated with a number of risks and health problems, including carcinogenic acrylamide consumption, obesity, osteoporosis, pesticide exposure, diabetes, high blood pressure, food addiction, sperm issues and chronic inflammation.
- Instead of traditional French fries made from white potatoes, try using sweet potatoes or purple potatoes to make fries that are loaded with health benefits, rather than risks.