Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
12 Feb

Can Fried Food Be Healthy?

Fried TurkeyFried food is regularly pummeled in the village square by CW because of the fat content. We Primal types know better of course. Although we eschew the carb-based foods (potatoes, donuts, corn chips, battered/breaded everything) that disgrace fry pans and deep fryers everywhere, we get along fine with the fat itself. I get a lot of questions from readers about frying foods – whether frying is a truly Primal practice and how frying can be done properly to avoid oxidation and retain nutrients. I know there are a lot of fried fans at MDA, and I hope they’ll share their tips as well.

Is frying Primal?

I’d give that a solid yes. With the right oils under the right conditions, fried veggies and meats are perfectly acceptable Primal delicacies. Are there better cooking methods? Yes. But again, with the right fat, temperature and food (no traditional batters in sight), frying is an an acceptable cooking method.

How does it work?

When the food comes in contact with the oil, the heat essentially activates the food’s moisture and steam cooks it from the inside. In a delicate equilibrium of deep frying, the steam keeps the oil from permeating the food, and the oil keeps the food’s moisture inside.

Ideal deep frying temperatures are generally 350°-375°. Lower than 325° and the oil will be absorbed into the food, making for gross, greasy fare. Much higher than 375° and you run the risk of additional oxidation in the oil as well as dried out food.

How does frying compare with other cooking methods when it comes to nutrient value?

Cooking almost always has some impact on the nutritional profile of a food. In cases like lycopene for tomato, cooking has a positive effect. In other cases, cooking diminishes nutritional content. Some research suggests that deep frying retains more antioxidant capacity in some vegetables but less in others when compared to boiling or pan frying. (Pan frying fared the worst.)

Speaking of pan frying, the difference is more than the pan itself. Pan frying is a shallow frying method, meaning the oil doesn’t cover more than half of the food you’re cooking. Some research suggests that pan frying results in more oil decomposition than deep frying. Pan frying generally takes longer, which may contribute to this difference. Although the oil in both methods is basically the same temperature, pan frying is more likely to produce carcinogenic compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) when the surface of the meat (or – to a lesser extent – vegetable) is burnt or overcooked. Although low and slow cooking methods (like braising) are great in preventing the formation of HCAs, deep frying or flash sautéing of small pieces are also good options, since they avoid any charring or scorching of food.

What are the best fats to use for frying?

You’ll want to choose oil with a smoke point of at least 350°F. (Personally, I like to err on the side of caution and go for a smoke point of 375° or above.) Oil, if heated beyond its smoke point, chemically deteriorates and forms toxic compounds associated with oxidative stress markers and degenerative illness in the human body.

Some folks swear by palm oil, which works well at frying temps because of its high smoke point (425°) and low toxic volatile emission rates. Beyond that, I would recommend animal fats: tallow, lard, lamb fat or other animal fats. My personal favorite is tallow, which is an incredibly stable fat source with a very high smoke point (420°). A side note: if you’ll be eating the fried food cold, use lard to avoid the coated tongue feeling.

I know some folks use olive oil for frying and stand by its stability in high heat because of its high monosaturated content. If you’re going to use olive oil, I’d recommend virgin olive oil (420° smoke point) as opposed to extra virgin olive oil (320°).

How do restaurants fry their food?

Although I think it’s entirely possible to do Primal frying at home, I wouldn’t touch the typical restaurant’s fried food. The most commonly used oils for commercial frying are hydrogenated vegetable oils (whether it’s labeled trans fat free or not) or canola oil, neither of which I eat or recommend. A few old school places still use lard, but they’re becoming fewer and fewer over time. Restaurants (being naturally profit-driven) also reuse their cooking oil time and again, which leads to continual decomposition. Although there are health protocols, who’s to say how well some of these places adhere to any guidelines when the inspectors aren’t around. I’ll skip the partially oxidized oil, thank you. Finally, some restaurants are taking advantage of new nanotechnology devices that allow them to use oil longer. The jury is still out on nanotech, and I for one would rather skip the experimental phase.

Let me wrap this up by saying that while frying food under just the right conditions can be a Primal endeavor some fat at these high heats will still oxidize. That for me is reason enough to not make frying food a daily occurrence. I play it safe and go low and slow for most of my meals.

Now let’s hear from you! Primal fryers out there, what say you? I’d love to read your tips (and recipes). Have a great weekend, everyone!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I agree – restaurant fried food is a recipe for disaster: refined carbs + rancid vegetable oils. You really can’t get much worse than that. So if someone just can’t give up the fried food habit it would be much better to do it at home with trustworthy fats and real food ingredients.

    Elizabeth wrote on February 12th, 2010
  2. My biggest problem with deep frying anything is just how much oil it actually takes. I have lovely beef tallow, but it would take so much of it to deep fry anything that I haven’t tried!

    What do you do with the oil when you’re done frying with it? I doubt it’s a good idea to reuse it, so do you just have to toss it?

    hannahc wrote on February 12th, 2010
    • When I was young and the dinosaurs roamed the earth, most restaurants using lard for deep-frying often re-use it for several days, and this is usage at high-volume. The food never tasted different from day-to-day.

      I know it doesn’t sound good to re-use it for other method of cooking or other food, but it might not be so bad if it’s saved to fry again in the future.

      My mother has done this for decades.


      Lean Couture wrote on February 12th, 2010
    • Make it into soap.

      Kelsey wrote on March 7th, 2015
  3. I fry things so seldom that I don’t worry about it a whole lot… usually it’s just eggs in butter though, not anything submerged/deep fried.

    Candace wrote on February 12th, 2010
  4. I believe this is the first time that fried foods have been discussed in a not totally negative way on a fitness blog.

    I’m still trying to stay away from fried foods, but it’s good to hear discussion that isn’t the same information over and over again.

    Brandon wrote on February 12th, 2010
  5. Almost all fried food is garbage so it’s easy to make broad generalizations. And yes, the amount of fat needed and the cleanup means deep frying at home isn’t all that common. Nonetheless this question comes up from time to time so I thought it worth addressing. Grok on!

    Mark Sisson wrote on February 12th, 2010
    • Great topic, Mark.

      Even though decades ago we used to deep-fry at home with even crappy ingredients, it was so inconvenient that we did it infrequently. I believe this lower frequency of eating even crappy fried food might have contributed to yesterday’ lower rate of obesity and degenerative diseases than today.

      Today the cooking and preparation of everything the nation eats is outsourced to big establishments, who often fry our food in vats and at large volume, while using poor ingredients and methods.

      It’s like the abundance of products on the shelf are deadly sludge with barcodes.

      My take is to fry your own food at home using good ingredients. You can’t go wrong.


      Lean Couture wrote on February 12th, 2010
  6. What do you think about coconut oil? I don’t use a lot, but that is what I usually use for my eggs or sauteeing veggies.

    jessica wrote on February 12th, 2010
    • I suppose it would work. I’ve never personally tried it.

      At least where I live it would be pretty expensive to have enough to deep fry food.

      Mark Sisson wrote on February 12th, 2010
      • Sorry.. I should have been more specific. What do you think personally about cooking foods in coc. oil? And I really enjoy your site, BTW! So informative and good back-up for why I eat the way I do. Thx!

        jessica wrote on February 12th, 2010
      • Learned the hard way that coconut oil only has a smoke-point of 350…

        “Hey now, why is my ROAST ON FIRE?”

        Aaron M Fraser wrote on February 12th, 2010
      • I use coconut oil to saute my food and sometimes even to fry my steak. The power supply to our house is very poor, so the stove does not get very hot. I am able to cook my steak in coconut oil without the steak even getting burnt. I also use olive oil when I do not feel like the taste of coconut.

        Angelina wrote on February 12th, 2010
    • I cook just about anything and everything in coconut oil. You’d have to sell your first born to afford using it for deep frying though.

      Grok wrote on February 14th, 2010
    • I went on a live-aboard dive trip to Belize a few years ago, and we ate fresh fish nearly every meal. There was a cook on board who used coconut oil, and it was absolutely delicious. It was available in abundance there, we visited one island where the locals main commerce was manufacturing it by hand.

      Peter wrote on June 26th, 2011
    • i heard from a doctor ,said that coconut oil is healthy, also he said that animal oil best than vegetable oil,,why i do not know .

      gasim wrote on June 18th, 2013
  7. We normally use mostly lard for deep frying (supplemented occasionally with tallow or sometimes peanut oil in a pinch). We typically render it ourselves from ground up bacon trimmings. The nice thing about this is that you end up with gobs of bacon bits (or cracklin’s as they’re sometimes called) when you’re done.

    We reuse the oil, but I will be more careful in the future not to overheat it. We store it in the freezer although that may not be necessary. After frying, let the grease cool and most of the dregs will settle on the bottom. We then pour off the relatively clear grease and discard the remainder. Eventually, it will all turn dark and then it’s probably time to discard the lot and start again. Generally though, pouring off the dregs and making up the difference with freshly rendered fat will keep it going for a good while.

    Jack Palmer wrote on February 12th, 2010
    • Good tips! Tx!

      Richard wrote on March 2nd, 2013
  8. Mark, I’m glad you posted this… I saw a recipe on Martha Stewart’s show (har har, I know) for deep-fried eggplant slices that I was going to sub almond meal for bread crumbs to dredge them in. The fried slices were then topped with a dollop of a cheese blend of hard cheeses, olive oil, pepper and basil pulsed in the food processor then a dollop of a very basic marinara of stewed tomatoes, sauteed onions and fresh basil. The layering was repeated a couple of times. It was like a piece of (near?) primal lasagna and I’ve been lusting over the idea ever since…

    Trau wrote on February 12th, 2010
  9. I cook a lot, but I have never fried anything in my life. (formerly brainwashed by conventional wisdom) But I have a tub of tallow in the fridge and I’m dying to try something.

    Suzan wrote on February 12th, 2010
  10. I have fried really thinly sliced sweet potatoes into chips in a pan full of coconut oil, using just enough oil to cover the chips in the pan so I didn’t need too much. Tasty stuff! Especially sprinkled with some cinnamon.

    But givin the amount of oil needed and the cleanup I don’t fry much else. I probably do sautee stuff a bit more than I should though. :/

    Mike wrote on February 12th, 2010
  11. I’m a big fan of meat fondues (good use of the fondue set since I went primal). Very simply, we heat the oil in a saucepan, transfer it to the fondue pot, and then cook bite-sized pieces of meat in the oil. If you like your meat rare, you will get a bigger share of the “kill.”

    We use grapeseed oil, which I know isn’t the optimal oil health-wise, but it works well.

    Madame P wrote on February 12th, 2010
  12. We use coconut oil to cook everything. My current favorite is scrambled grass-fed ground beef & eggs with all kinds of spices/herbs. Yummy! We use a pan but I stand over it & make sure nothing gets burned or blackened. I scramble the beef until it just has a small amount of pink then I add the eggs & mix them up. Quick, easy & simple.

    Jim Smith wrote on February 12th, 2010
  13. Following up… Several people have commented rightly on how messy frying can be. I recommend setting up an outdoor fry station with a large dedicated frying pot and a propane burner if you plan to do a lot of frying. That’s how I do it and cleanup couldn’t be easier.

    Jack Palmer wrote on February 12th, 2010
  14. I have a little mini-deep fryer and use it on occasion with lard, palm oil, or beef tallow. I toss the oil which is why I don’t use expensive oils to deep fry with. Tallow is the cheapest of the bunch where I live.

    Still pan frying uses even lower temperatures and is what is considered true french frying.

    Michael wrote on February 12th, 2010
  15. If you ever have to persuade the pummelers in the village square, measure the fat you fry in (preferably lard) before and after cooking. Surprisingly little fat stays with the food.

    Equal amounts of Parmesan and ground almonds make fabulous breading for frying that takes on very little fat.

    Factor in the fat that gets drained off on paper towels after cooking and it’s even less.

    Mar wrote on February 12th, 2010
  16. How to care for deep fry oil (courtesy of two years employment at Wendy’s) for both open and pressure fryers:

    At Wendy’s we used vegetable oil, which turns rancid pretty quickly and was used in a commercial setting. Every day (evening for our store), we filtered the oil and put it in large plastic containers, which were put in the fridge overnight. Then we cleaned and sanitized the fry machines. Every morning we put in the oil and heated it for the day. The old oil was disposed of about every three days. (Fun fact: employees would eat the fried food mostly on day one, and least on day three.)

    How I would apply this to the home/primal setting:

    1) Don’t toss your fat! If you’re only using it intermittently, at the appropriate temps, and FILTERING it, then it will last for quite some time. Moisture and other contaminants will ruin your fats long before their time. Home filtering should be done when the oil is warm (not hot, don’t be stupid) enough to pour fairly easily. Just pour your fat through a coffee filter and into a jar. Let your fat cool on the counter to room temp and then put it in your fridge. Boom. Done.

    2) Keep your fryer clean. For obvious reasons.

    Be safe. I’ve had my share of oil burns and it will burn you right through clothes.

    Swintah wrote on February 12th, 2010
  17. I did this concoction the other night and it was awesome!

    I cut up bite size pieces of chicken breast, threw them in a whisked egg bath, then covered the chicken in shredded coconut, fried them in coconut oil and then put them on top of my Big Ass Salad. Talk about nummy! It was awesome to the core!

    jpickett1968 wrote on February 12th, 2010
    • That is a genius idea. I am going to try that today!

      Timothy wrote on February 13th, 2010
  18. Has anyone tried cooking with macadamia nut oil? I heard this is one of the best oils to cook with. The omega 3 to omega 6 ration is about an even 1:1. However, it is incredibly expensive…

    Todd wrote on February 12th, 2010
    • It is mostly monounsaturated fats. I prefer less-oxidizable saturated fats, but with the smoke point reported at 410F (much higher than I expected for a nut oil), it might work as a decent fry oil.

      Will Davidson wrote on April 17th, 2010
  19. I have found a supplier of fat from pasture fed cows. I just need to work out how to render? it into tallow now.

    Angelina wrote on February 13th, 2010
  20. Argh, I’ve been traveling and frying eggs in a pan every day with olive oil figuring this was good. I need something easy to do with the eggs (which burn on the crappy pan every time) – I guess I’ll see if I can choke them down boiled? Ugh… Otherwise about the only thing I can get here for breakfast is french bread with jam… (west Africa, very short on veggies here…)

    I need more egg recipes in general… help…

    Animal wrote on February 13th, 2010
    • can’t you just cook the eggs at a lower heat. that way the olive oil won’t be damaged, it will just take longer to make breakfast. . .right?

      Mike H wrote on February 14th, 2010
  21. It’s traditional in India to use ghee for deep frying and when we make pakoras, the batter is a mixture of ‘besan’ which chick pea flour mixed with yoghurt and spice.

    That’s probably more primaly?

    Mia wrote on February 13th, 2010
    • I use chickpea flour for my breading on my chicken. My wife throws a bunch of Indian spices into the flour as well. Not sure what it is though, she has them written in Hindi I think. But it sure taste good. We let the chicken sit in the flour and soak up the flour. Then we pat them down with some more until there is a nice coating of flour. Then we fry them. It turns out really well. I just wonder how primal chickpea flour is. It has to be better then regular grain flour.

      Cuyler wrote on December 18th, 2011
  22. My primal cooking is very unskilled, but one dish that’s hard to mess up and doesn’t get boring is frying bacon by itself in a pan, then frying eggs in the bacon grease. Last time I tried this I added a bit of butter and coconut oil with the bacon, which added some flavor to the eggs. What seems to work best for me is to heat up the oil, then take the pan off the flame and let the oil cook the food as it slowly cools, reheating the oil as necessary. That keeps the accidental charring to a minimum.

    Also crucial is to fry the eggs sunny side up with runny yolks for minimum oxidized cholesterol and maximum bacon-dipping opportunity. Thanks to Mark for that one!

    Timothy wrote on February 13th, 2010
  23. Uh, what’s wrong with canola oil? I thought it had the best omega 3/6 ratio.

    Forty2 wrote on February 13th, 2010
  24. Wait, nevermind. There’s this thing called “search” now!

    Forty2 wrote on February 13th, 2010
  25. We fry very infrequently, but a very ripe plantain sliced thickly and fried makes a wonderful dessert.

    Lo wrote on February 13th, 2010
  26. oh, thanks Mark!
    this is a great read. I always thought pan frying was ok. =(
    one question though, normally I cook with just a bit of oil/butter, which wouldn’t even cover half of the pan, is that counted as pan frying as well?

    riceball wrote on February 14th, 2010
  27. My lard is just basically… smoking. Too often. Why?

    C2H5OH wrote on February 14th, 2010
    • Sounds like it’s too hot. Steam is to be expected during cooking or rendering, but smoke means it’s too hot.

      Jack Palmer wrote on February 15th, 2010
  28. I love the “pork roast” smell of lard warming up on the stove…

    We use lard in the restaurant i work in – I think we are the only one in town that does. I have a weakness for the sweet potato fries, I have to admit.

    In response to the others on pan cooking, recently I have been using a mixture of ghee, coconut oil and bacon grease (approx equal parts). Sauteed onions are divine this way. Then I sometimes add rutabagas, turnips & carrots. Or liver. Marinate in red wine vinegar & honey, dredge in coconut flour, almond meal, & spice. I also love eggs cooked in the pan after bacon. yum

    Peggy wrote on February 15th, 2010
  29. You suggest that pan frying risks the production of HCAs. Given how hard I’ve worked at perfecting the perfect sear (especially with fish and chicken), I’m wondering if you have more data on how much cooking and searing is too much?

    Melinda Neely wrote on February 16th, 2010
  30. I have a deep fryer that I spent $30 on coconut oil to initially fill up. While that initial fill up is expensive…it’s not as expensive as you’d think.

    One thing I read over at the Weston Price Foundation’s website awhile back is that coconut oil is very stable, and doesn’t break down with heating and re-heating. So while it is initially expensive, you don’t need to continually change the oil after each fry.

    I like to fry up sweet potatoes, yukon gold potatoes, onion rings (with almond flour), and fried chicken in the coconut oil. I also use it to make my own tortilla chips — this is very occasionally though. Yeah, it’s not “primal” but I simply cannot give up tortilla chips when it comes to mexican food. At least I’m using a healthy oil for frying unlike the typical corn/canola/safflower oils store bought tortilla chips.

    One thing about coconut oil is that at room temperature, it solidifies, so whenever I’m done frying with it, I use a little hand held strainer to clean out the food particles that inevitably accumulate in the oil. Than i simply leave the fryer until it cools to the point where the coconut oil solidifies it, than I can put it away.

    Another attribute about coconut oil in a deep fat fryer, is that for some reason, it bubbles up more when you initially drop the basket in far more than conventional vegetable oils…so you don’t need to fill up the fryer to the “minimum” line in your fryer. A little bit lower than the minimum works just fine.

    I’ve found that I only have to add another fresh can of oil after about a month or so (depending on how often I fry).

    Anyhow, try some fried sweet potato with some hawaiian salt and Jamaican Jerk Seasoning…it’s outstanding!

    Dave from Hawaii wrote on February 16th, 2010
    • I drooled on my loincloth while reading your comment.

      Grok wrote on February 16th, 2010
  31. Mark,(anyone)
    What oil would you suggest for frying a whole turkey?

    david wrote on February 19th, 2010
  32. I gently pan-fry tillapia fillets dipped in beaten egg and dredged in pecan meal with a little salt added. My husband loves it (he usually says “ewww” to fish).

    Maxine Humpherys wrote on February 26th, 2010
  33. I forgot to add, I fry them in butter.

    Maxine Humpherys wrote on February 26th, 2010
  34. good article thanks information…

    puthra wrote on March 3rd, 2010

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