French fries linked to higher risk of mortality?

Eat french fries in moderation or not more than twice a week.
Eat french fries in moderation or not more than twice a week.PHOTO: ST FILE

NEW YORK • Are you reading this story over a pile of french fries?

Here is advice: Back slowly away from the crispy spuds. They are out to get you.

That is the apparent takeaway of a study published this month by the American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition. It analysed the potato consumption of 4,440 American participants, aged 45 to 79, over an eight-year period.

Researchers used questionnaires to determine each person's spud-eating habits, including both fried and unfried products. The data was used to trace links between potato consumption and mortality.

"No study existed about this possible association," said Ms Nicola Veronese, a scientist with the National Research Council in Padova, Italy, in an e-mail. She was the lead author and one of a dozen researchers who took part in the study.

Exactly 236 people died during the course of the study.

After adjusting for a variety of factors - education, race, income, alcohol consumption and exercise, among other things - the researchers concluded that people who eat french fries could be in trouble, health-wise.

Folks who ate "fried potatoes" two or more times a week "were at an increased risk of mortality".

The researchers concluded that frequent fried potato eaters more than doubled their risk of premature death.

The ray of hope for tuber lovers? "The consumption of unfried potatoes was not associated with an increased mortality risk," the study noted.

No word if those unfried potatoes were drenched with butter, slathered with sour cream and sprinkled with pre-shredded cheddar.

Many potato lovers, of course, cried fryer-oil tears over the news.

But the truly aggrieved party was the National Potato Council, based in Washington.

Mr John Keeling, its chief executive, released a statement saying the "study has significant methodological flaws, which have led to misinterpretations of the data".

Among the council's complaints: The participants were taken from a study on osteoarthritis, which meant the subjects either had osteoarthritis of the knee or were at high risk for it.

This population, the council argues, "cannot be generalised to other populations".

The council also noted that the participants were asked to fill in a single questionnaire in the "year preceding the start of the study".

"No other attempt was made to record the participants' dietary patterns in the entire intervening eight years of the study. Based on these data, it is very much of a stretch to brand fried potatoes, or any other form of potato, as unhealthy," Mr Keeling said in his statement.

"The food consumption reported in the study may not have reflected usage over the course of the lifetime, further illustrating the danger of branding potatoes (or any other food item) as being unhealthy or healthy in the context of this study."

Ms Veronese did not dispute some of Mr Keeling's charges, agreeing that the research subjects were taken from a study on osteoarthritis and that the one-time questionnaire does have "some limitations".

But she noted that such one-off questionnaires are "common" to long-term studies.

What is more, the researcher added, osteoarthritis subjects share similar characteristics with the general population in the United States.

"Our findings," said Ms Veronese, "would be similar in other populations, but other studies are needed, of course."

Ms Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, was not so alarmed by the study's results.

"First, this is an association," she said. "Fried potatoes are associated with somewhat higher mortality, but this does not mean that they cause death.

"People who eat a lot of fried potatoes might have other unhealthy lifestyle practices - they might have worse diets in general, not exercise, smoke more or drink more."

She added: "The most significant associations are at the highest levels of intake of fried potatoes - three times a week or more.

"The moral here is moderation. If you love french fries, make them a once-in-a-while treat."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 19, 2017, with the headline 'French fries linked to higher risk of mortality?'. Print Edition | Subscribe