Hot Chips

Reporter: Helen Wellings

They're Australia's favourite hot snack, along with the meat pie -- hot chips. Chunky , straight-cut, crinkle-cut or wedge; Fried, baked, microwaved; potato encased in crisp, golden fat they are hard to beat.

With "fat free" and "salt reduced" -- the food industry's constant catch cries -- are chips cooked in fat, sprinkled with salt, one of the very worst foods of all or are some OK?

Food Scientist, Tony Thirlwell, CEO of the Heart Foundation, says "It's a matter of how often you have them and how the chips are prepared is important".

We analysed the contents of different brands of supermarket chips and takeaway varieties to find out which were healthy, not so healthy and downright bad for you.

Nicole Senior, Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist and, author of Eat to Beat Cholesterol, is turning the tables on the food industry's 97% fat-free, less fat mantra. She says healthy eating is not about avoiding fat -- it's about making sure we eat, even increase our intake of the right fats. "We do need to eat healthy fats, and oils are a source of healthy fats", Nicole said.

"It's also important the oils that are used because not oils are the same -- there are healthier oils and there are unhealthy oils", Tony said.

Tony says there's a hierarchy of oils, good to bad. Some takeaway chips are still cooked in cheap, unhealthy oils -- and they shouldn't be. "It's to do with the level of saturation in the oil. You should try to reduce saturated fats as much as you can because it leads to heart disease", Tony said.

The best oils - top score goes to canola with 92% of the good poly and monounsaturated fats, only 8% bad saturated fats; Sunflower has 90% unsaturated; grapeseed 88% unsaturated.

The worst oils are cottonseed 74% saturated, 26% unsaturated; even worst are beef tallow with 4% bad-for-the-heart transfats; palm oil about half is saturated fat, and worst of all is coconut oil, 91% is unhealthy saturated fat.

"A lot of the big fast food chains have made good changes, they have changed to healthier oils", Nicole said.

KFC, Hungry Jacks and McDonalds chips get the thumbs up for oil -- they're cooked in healthy canola. Because of its high demand, canola has also become a cheap oil, so there's no excuse not to cook in it.

But for Red Rooster's chips, the ingredients label says they're fried in a mixture of canola and palm oil. "So palm is not very good. Nandos, when we asked them, they said they cooked their chips in cottonseed oil", Nicole said.

So look for the good canola or sunflower oil, but not too much.

And with chips size does matter. "The surface area of the chip is the way oils absorb into the chips so if you have thicker chips they're better for you than thinner chips, thinner chips have a higher level of fat in them than thick chips", Tony said.

Which makes KFC's thicker chips lowest in fat, 9.2% total fats, 1.2% unsaturated; half the fat of Macca's thin chips --19% fat and 2.35 unsaturated; 955 kJ per 100 gm in KFC compared with 1480kJ in MacDonalds.

And Maccas has the highest sodium or salt level. "Salt is not good for us", Nicole said.

A large proportion of suburban fish and chip and small takeaway shops still cook in cheap, unhealthy fats like palm and cottonseed oils, something the Heart Foundation is working with local councils to change.

For supermarket chips there's good news. "I was pleased to see that all these products use healthy oil, they use either canola or sunflower and most are very low in salt or sodium", Nicole said.

The supermarket chips contain 95% to 97% potato, but BirdsEye only 87% potato. "It actually has the lowest content of potato and that is because it has lots of coating on each slice of the chip to make it tasty. As a result it has more salt or sodium", Nicole said.

The highest amount of sodium or salt is found in the Coles chips, then Bird's Eye.

Supermarket frozen chips have another huge advantage over takeaway. "What is really pleasing with the supermarket brands is you can bake, so they give you an option of oven baking which contains less oil. You don't have that option with the fast food unfortunately and this is where portion size becomes really important", Nicole said.

For cooking chips at home, Nicole says, "What what I wouldn't recommend for deep frying at home is your extra virgin olive oil because this has high Aeolic content that can be destroyed when you heat it to high temperatures for frying. So leave it for drizzling and for the salad dressing", Nicole said.

It is also advised to use absorbent paper to soak up excess fat and watch the portion size.

The final piece of advice from Tony is: "The tick is a good guide because if it has the tick you can guarantee it meets strict criteria that the Heart Foundation insists those food manufacturers comply with".

And from Nicole: "If you have chips once a week that would be fine. Select the chips as we have done, that are lowest in salt and make sure they are cooked in healthy oil -- and balance the plate with other vegetables".

For further information:

Nicole Senior's book, "Eat to Beat Cholesterol", is published by New Holland.

National Heart Foundation of Australia at: www.heartfoundation.org.au