What’s In Carnival Foods?

Written By: Sofia Layarda, MPH

Title: Master of Public Health

Alumni: University of California, Berkeley

Last Updated on:

Are you planning to visit a carnival or state fair this summer? In celebration of summer fun, we’re taking a closer look at some of the more common foods served at state fairs and amusement parks across the country.

Top 5 Carnival Foods

Cotton Candy

This is essentially sugar that is melted, then forced through tiny holes and cooled again to form fine threads. The threads then are spun on a stick inside the cotton candy machine. An average serving has 220 calories (0% from fat), which will take approximately 1 hour of walking to burn off.

Fried Dough

Fried dough served with either sweet or savory toppings is a fixture at fairs and carnivals. Depending on the cultural influence, the dough may be yeast-based or unleavened. The actual name assigned to this concoction varies by region; some common ones are beignets, funnel cakes, elephant ears, beaver tails, fritters, and doughboys. A 3-oz serving has 400 calories (25% from fat).

Meat on a Stick

Carnival “meat on a stick” is known by many names, such as corn dog, fry-dog, or tater dog. It is essentially a wiener dipped in a batter (or a combination of batter and potato slices) and deep fried. A 3-oz corn dog has 210 calories (15% from fat). There are jumbo-sized ones out there, which will clock in higher calorie and fat loads.

Cheese Curds

The curds are basically batter-covered pieces of cheese that are deep-fried. A 7-oz serving delivers close to 700 calories (61% from fat) and a whopping 75% of your daily sodium limit.

Deep-Fried Sweets

Just as the name suggests, the preparation of this treat involves dipping the sweet item (often a candy bar, cookie, or Twinkie) into a batter and then deep-frying it. An average candy bar rings in at around 350 calories, before the batter and deep-frying, which could easily double the calorie count.

Survival Tips at the State Fair

You don’t have to be a nutrition expert to recognize that many carnival foods are high in fat, sugar, salt, or all of the above. But it is possible to enjoy these treats on your visit without going completely overboard, if you stick to the following guidelines:

  • Don’t show up hungry: eat before you go, or bring some simple snacks along.
  • Split an order with someone else. If you are going as a family or a large group, collectively choose the top 3 “must-have” treats and stick to those during your visit.
  • Find a comfortable spot to sit down and enjoy these treats. It is easy to overeat when you are just mindlessly wandering about, not paying attention to what you are eating.
  • Open your eyes to other food possibilities beyond the “traditional” carnival fare. These days, some fairs offer choices for the more health-conscious crowd, such as fruits, yogurt, and packaged salads (keep the dressing on the side). We have even seen grilled meats on skewers (souvlaki or satay-style), which are better choices than the battered/deep-fried items. Use the healthier choices to fuel up, and finish off with the high-calorie carnival fare as a dessert you can share with others.
  • Finally, put it all in context. Indulging in some treats during one visit to the fair probably won’t do much harm, but if you are spending a week at an amusement park, “sprinkle out” the treats throughout the visit instead of gobbling them up for every meal. It’s not fun to end a trip with ill-fitting clothes (and a higher number on the scale).

Groceries, Lifestyle

kid's nutrition, outdoor eating, seasonal celebrations


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