Food Stalls at the NC State Fair
Credit: Rose Hoban

If you want to head to the state fair and actually eat something that’s healthy, it’s actually possible. But you have to put in some effort.

By Rose Hoban

Each year you hear of what new deep fried “treat” is on offer at the North Carolina State Fair. This year is no different: Girl Scout cookies, Hostess cupcakes and Swiss Rolls are all getting the batter-and-hot-oil treatment.

One of these things is not like the other – much of the food on offer at the state fair food is deep fried, and loaded with calories. Credit: Rose Hoban
One of these things is not like the other – much of the food on offer at the state fair food is deep fried, and loaded with calories. Credit: Rose Hoban

But what’s a person to do if they want to attend the state fair and actually eat something that won’t make a cardiologist hang his head and cry?

“It’s tough,” laughed Suzanne Havala-Hobbs, a nutritionist from UNC Chapel Hill who writes a diet and health column for the Raleigh News and Observer.

“One of the best strategies is not to go to the fair hungry, eat dinner before you go,” Havala-Hobbs said. You’re going to be less likely to cave into an impulsive choice.”

Havala-Hobbs pointed out that by some analyses, something as small as a deep-fried Oreo has more than 130 calories, most of it from fat and sugar. That could be close ten percent of the daily caloric intake for a woman: Hobbs said the target intake for a woman trying to maintain her weight is 1500-1800 calories, for a man it’s 1800-2300 calories in a day.

“Some of those deep fried onions can have as many as 1200 calories,” Havala-Hobbs said.

It doesn’t have to be this way

North Carolina ranks fourteenth in the country in the rate of obese people, with more than two-thirds of North Carolina adults weighing in as overweight or obese.  So, it would  be a good question as to why a state fair – where many of a state’s good qualities are on display – should be a place with such deplorable food choices.

Some states have begun to address this disconnect head on by inviting vendors offering healthier choices to sell at their state fairs.

Nutritionist Suzanne Havala-Hobbs said you can splurge on a fatty treat at the fair as long as it’s a rare treat, not an everyday thing. Credit: Rose Hoban
Nutritionist Suzanne Havala-Hobbs said you can splurge on a fatty treat at the fair as long as it’s a rare treat, not an everyday thing. Credit: Rose Hoban

“It’s always been the case that we look for healthier options at the fair,” said Brienna Schutte marketing manager for the Minnesota State Fair. “But we’ve made a larger effort for the past five years.”

Schutte said the Minnesota fair has several vendors who sell fresh fruits and vegetables, have gluten-free and vegetarian options, and even sushi. One vendor went to New England to research lobster rolls, came back and tweaked it to create a walleye roll that Schutte said was very popular. There’s even a tent where fairgoers can get a fresh made-to-order tossed salad, another with eggplant tacos and one vendor who’s brought East African delicacies, such as camel burgers.

“It’s actually quite good – it’s a lean, darker meat,” Schutte said.

Schutte said the idea is to bring in a lot of variety so that anyone with any kind of preference can come to the fair and enjoy something.

“We survey people about the state fair, and food is the number one reason people come,” Schutte said. “The ag component is strong, as well as the entertainment. But food is the number one reason people say they come. Our new foods announcement happens in mid-June and it’s the most sought after media story that we in the marketing department deal with on an annual basis.”

Minnesota is in the bottom third in national obesity rankings.

So you still want to eat? Here are some tips.

See our healthy eating chart below.

Some vendors have seen the need for healthier food at the fair and decided to fill that niche, like Joe and Sam Saleh from Raleigh’s Neomonde Bakery who started their stand three years ago. Their booth near the Dorton Arena offers kebabs, shwarma, hummus and pita, and salads.

“This is the main reason we came – to offer an alternative,” said Sam Saleh

Other vendors have had the same idea, like John the Greek and Strates Fine Foods, both offering Greek salads, gyros and kabobs.

Andrea Millington, whose Taco Tower booth is a few steps away from Neomonde, has been at the fair for a dozen years.

“Nothing we have is fried, except french fries” Millington said. She and her husband Stephen used to have a Caribbean restaurant in Cary, and carried some of their dishes to the fair, like vegetarian bean burritos, jerk chicken and baked fish with rice.

“The ethnic foods tend to be a good place to go for healthier options,” Havala-Hobbs said. “Look for fresh foods as close to their natural state as possible, like an ear of corn.  Foods where they’re mixed with fruits, or vegetables, or greens. even a caramel apple, or corn on the cob, as long as it’s not swimming in butter.”

Havala-Hobbs said some people may decide there’s some room for a fatty, sugary treat at the state fair and if it’s really a once-a-year, or infrequent event, it’s probably okay.

“But it’s when people begin to delude themselves that it’s ‘just this time,’ but when it’s three, four times a week, that’s a problem.” she said. “It’s how you eat consistently over time. So, I dunno, if I eat something junky once in a while, it might be OK, if the rest of the time my diet is superb.”

And she acknowledges the tug of state fair foods, like cotton candy and funnel cakes.

“People hold these memories of the fair close to their hearts,” said Havala-Hobbs, reminiscing about going to the Wisconsin State Fair when she was growing up. “For many people there’s an emotional connection to the state fair and that emotional connection runs straight to their stomachs.”

Peanuts“Peanuts would be a good choice. they’re high in fiber, at the fair they’re a better choice than others. Nuts at the fair are generally a good choice, even if they have a little sugar on them.”
Caramel Apples“If you’re eating an apple, you get fiber, nutrients and … and you’re probably filling up on something that’s mostly healthy, even if there’s some caramel on it.”
Apple Cider“That’s a good alternative to sweet sodas.”
Apples“That’s your best bet.”
Popcorn“It’s better than a lot of choices at the fair.”
Roasted Corn“I see people walking around with ears of corn, but if it’s drenched in butter, that’s a problem. But in the scheme of things, relative to other fair food, even that’s not half bad.”
Baked Potatoes/ Baked Sweet Potatoes“That’s a great choice, as long as you don’t load it up with lots of fatty toppings.”
Kebabs“Those are great. Look for food that includes mixtures of rice and vegetables or where the meat is in bits rather than a huge honking piece.”

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Rose Hoban

Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...