How to enjoy chips in the healthiest way possible (2024)

They’re the first thing that springs to mind when you hear the words “unhealthy food” – full of saturated fat and usually served with too much salt. Yet, try as we might, we can’t resist the draw of chips.

According to a survey by the oven-chip brand McCain, we each consume, on average, 30kg of chips per year. That adds up to about two million tons across the country – almost half of our entire potato consumption is in the form of chips.

Unsurprisingly, this isn’t a healthy habit. A 2017 study found that eating fried potatoes twice or more per week doubled the risk of an early death in those aged 45-79 due to links with obesity, hypertension and diabetes. There is also the problem of acrylamide, a chemical that can naturally occur in starchy foods, including potatoes, when they’re heated and which has been linked to cancer.

All that being said, given chips are half of Britain’s unofficial national dish, and such a firm favourite, it seems unlikely we’ll give them up entirely. So, what can we do to make our chip habit a little bit healthier and keep this beloved treat from killing us?

What exactly is in a chip?

Potato. But you knew that, right?

The main macronutrients found in potatoes are carbohydrates from starch. These are mostly important for generating energy, although if you eat too many, the body will store them as fat. “Carbohydrates from potatoes are quite high on the glycaemic index, which means they can be absorbed more quickly and easily,” explains Dr Duane Mellor, a British Dietetic Association spokesman and registered dietitian. “That means they don’t keep you full as long as lower glycaemic-index carbohydrates like you’d get from fruit and vegetables.”

In terms of micronutrients, potatoes have some vitamin C (“It’s not a lot, but because of the quantities we tend to eat chips in, for a long time potato was the main source of vitamin C in the British diet,” says Dr Mellor) and potassium. Potassium is vital when it comes to regulating blood pressure, though the next vital ingredient in a chip may cancel that out. Of course, that troublesome element is the fat that chips are cooked in. “In simple terms, if you look at a bowl of chips, it’ll have three times the calories of the same weight of boiled potatoes, because fat is so high in calories,” says Dr Mellor. “Frying removes water and replaces it with fat, so you’re left with a chip that, unlike a potato, contains nothing but carbohydrates and fat.”

Chips tend to be cooked in mass-produced seed or vegetable oils, especially at takeaways. These are likely to be high inflammatory fats, which increase the risk of heart disease. Even worse are those cooked in saturated fats, such as beef dripping. While these types of oil increase the crispiness and give the golden glow that diners love, unfortunately, “The body can’t do much with that kind of fat, and they just serve to increase cholesterol and the risk of heart disease,” says Mellor.

Deep-frying versus oven-baking versus air-frying

The way chips are prepared affects how much fat is in them. Both oven-baking and air-frying your chips limit the amount of oil you’re using, so these are healthier ways to cook chips. ‘’

Deep-fried chips are generally considered tastier because they contain more fat (more on that below), but if you’re going to deep-fry food, it’s worth being wary of the oil you’re using.

“Reusing oil can start to change the chemistry of the fat – each time you heat the oil, the fats will break down more,” says Dr Mellor. “Even if you’ve started with an unsaturated fat like vegetable oil, it will start breaking down to become a trans fat. These are linked to a higher risk of cancer and obesity. That’s more of a potential risk in a chip shop where the fat is sitting there for a long time, but most good chippies will have strict rules about how often they change the oil in their fryers, so ask if you’re concerned.”

Deep-frying can also reduce the potentially healthy elements that are found in food. “When deep-frying foods, some antioxidant vitamins are lost due to oxidation, and deep-frying foods for long periods may increase the formation of advanced glycation end products,” says dietitian Emer Delaney. “These are harmful compounds that may increase the risk of developing chronic diseases such as diabetes, and even cancer.”

However, just because oven-baking uses less oil, that doesn’t necessarily mean oven chips are healthier. “Many oven chips you buy from the supermarket will contain ingredients that tip them into ultra-processed food territory,” advises nutritionist Sam Rice. “These would not be considered healthy, as they contain processed ingredients and low-quality industrial vegetable and seed oils known to contribute to inflammation, which increases your risk of issues like heart disease.”

Why do chips taste so good if they’re so bad for us? There is a reason why we find fatty food so delicious: scientists have found we have taste receptors for fat on our tongues.

“Fat is important for survival, it keeps us warm and provides an energy store for when times are leaner,” says Dr Mellor. “Historically, most of our fat would come from hunting animals, and that wasn’t a plentiful source, so we needed to get as much of it as we could when it was available. It’s hard for our brains to control how much we crave fat because we’re genetically wired to enjoy it so much.”

Are some kinds of chips healthier than others?

“It’s all about the surface area,” says the independent nutritionist and consultant Jenna Hope. “Skinny fries will typically contain more fats and saturated fats than pub-style chunky chips because the surface to volume area is much larger, which allows more fat to get into them.”

However, pub-style chips can often be twice- or thrice-cooked. This gives them the characteristic golden colour and crispy texture, but does mean they will have absorbed more oil. “The crispier or more golden a chip, the more fat it has absorbed,” says Hope.

Some restaurants and pubs offer sweet-potato fries and vegetable crisps. These are often seen as a healthier option, but are they? “Sweet-potato fries have a slightly lower glycaemic index, so they break down a bit more slowly and you’ll stay full for longer,” says Dr Mellor. “They’ve also got a bit more vitamin A and vitamin C than other kinds of potato, but once you fry them, those vitamins will be degraded. In terms of calories, there’s not a lot of difference.”

Dr Mellor gives similarly short shrift to “fried vegetable chips”, such as courgette fries and tempura vegetables. “They have less carbohydrates, but if you’re frying them, you’re still packing them with fat,” he explains. “Honestly, just try to have some vegetables alongside your regular chips. Vegetable chips might be a little bit better than potato chips, but they’re not great.”

What is the healthiest way to eat chips?

The experts concurred that chips will never be healthy, but all agreed that it’s possible to make them healthier.

The type of potato you use matters. “A waxier type, such as a red potato, and Apache, Cornish King and Charlotte potatoes, will absorb less fat from the oil,” says Dr Mellor.

If you can, avoid peeling your potatoes. “The skin might do something to prevent fat from penetrating the potato, but more importantly, you’ll get some fibre from the skin, which is important for digestion,” says Dr Mellor.

Speaking of oil: “The best is extra virgin olive oil, which is a very healthy source of monounsaturated fat [beneficial for good cholesterol]. Mass-produced seed or vegetable oil is likely to be high in inflammatory fats, so avoid those,” says Rice. “It’s a bit of a myth you can’t use extra virgin olive oil for cooking or frying – it’s stable up to 210C, which is high enough for pretty much any purpose, including cooking chips. However, repeated heating of the same oil will result in a breakdown of the antioxidant phenols [the good stuff in the oil], so five or six uses would be the maximum. After use, be sure to strain it and store it in a sealed container somewhere cool.

“In theory, air-frying will use the least oil if you’re going to make chips,” continues Rice. “Oven baking will also work well, as long as you’re only using a light coating of oil.”

Bear in mind that we tend to eat chips in higher quantities than we really should. “A portion should be about 80g-100g and should be consumed alongside a source of protein and a serving of vegetables,” says Hope. A portion in a chip shop tends to be twice or even three times as much as that, she says.

Finally, there’s the white stuff we tend to sprinkle on chips. “The majority of the UK population are overconsuming salt,” adds Hope. “The recommendation for adults is to consume no more than 6g per day. Therefore, we need to limit the amount of salt we’re adding to chips. A small sprinkle should be enough.”

Most importantly, the advice from the experts is to enjoy chips, but only as an occasional treat, rather than an everyday snack. Who knows? They might even taste all the better for it.

How to enjoy chips in the healthiest way possible (2024)
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