It's highly likely that the menu at a fast-food restaurant will include french fries, and it's also quite likely that you will order them. French fries might have a French name, but they are a quintessential fast-food staple in America. The simple recipe of sliced potatoes that are deep-fried and salted is one of the most common side dishes served in fast-food establishments. Though they're often thought of as the perfect companion to a burger, they can also be enjoyed on their own as a snack or even used to perk up another dish (like on pizza or in a sandwich — yes that exists).
People tend to have strong opinions about which fast-food chain really serves the best fries, and what a "good fry" really is — some prefer them crispy and thin, others like them thick and more "potato-y," some like them straight as a stick, and others like their fries curly. But while scooping up ketchup with a pile of those favorite fries can definitely be a feel-good moment, it might be worth remembering that — even if a potato is a vegetable — fries are not healthy.
It shouldn't be a surprise that fries are packed with fat, calories, and sodium. Deep-fried and often heavily salted, french fries might not be the best choice for a side to an already fat-oozing burger. But in the wonderful world of fast-food fries, there actually is a difference in how much calories, fat, and "bad fats" (saturated and trans) your serving of french fries will contain, depending on where you buy it.
In order to find out which fast-food restaurants serve the "worst" fries, nutritionally speaking, we dug through the nutritional information of some of America's top chain restaurants, comparing the amount of calories, fat, and sodium in a small serving of french fries. As some restaurants had the same amount of calories, we split up the ranking by the difference in amount of fat. Nutritionist Keri Glassman, M.D., of the website Nutritious Life, explains that in general, potatoes cooked with the skin on — a method used by Wendy’s and Chick-fil-A, among others — are healthier, as most of the nutrients in a potato come from the skin. But Glassman also stresses that the health benefits that might have come from skin-on preparation unfortunately get outweighed by high fat and sodium content.
It is also worth remembering that the type of fat makes a difference, Glassman says, and that one should limit their intake of saturated fats, as an excess of this fat type can lead to a rise in cholesterol levels. In order to help you make your choice, we also included the saturated fat amount in our comparison. And fries are often loaded with sodium, even if their calories and fat are on the lower end. The reason for this is often heavy seasoning, such as the flavoring on Arby’s curly fries. Besides salt, fast-food fries often contain several more ingredients that one might think, including artificial flavorings and preservatives. McDonald's fries, for example, contain a total of 17 ingredients, and most other fast-food chains show similar, long, ingredient-lists in their nutritional information profiles.
When comparing the (un)healthiness of fries, note that the serving size of a "small portion" also varies — from McDonald's' 71 grams to Five Guys' massive 227 grams. It's a good reminder that a "small" is not always so small, and that it is good to check the portion sizes if you're looking for ways to eat better. Some fast-food restaurants, like Burger King, also offer healthier fry options, with their new "Satisfries," crinkle-cut fries with 40 percent less fat and 30 percent calories. But according to a report by BusinessWeek, the fries aren't yet a permanent menu item, as the fast-food chain does not want to commit — yet — to serving the healthier fries as a long-term menu option.
Curious to see how your favorite fast-food fries ranked in terms of healthiness? Click through our slideshow of the Unhealthiest Fast-Food Fries in America to find out!