Do healthy chips exist? We all know that Americans love potatoes – the state of Idaho alone produces more than 12 billion pounds of them per year.
Highly versatile in mashed, fried and baked forms, potatoes are packed with vitamins and minerals. Andy Weir’s astronaut main character famously survived off of potatoes alone on Mars in the 2011 fiction novel “The Martian.” They’re starchy vegetables, which means they have carbohydrates that our body breaks down to use as energy and help us feel full, even if they do have more calories and less fiber than other vegetables.
So if potatoes are good for us, what makes potato chips unhealthy? And are there any healthy potato chips?
What are the problems with our consumption of chips?
There are two big health concerns with chips – not the vegetable or grain they’re made with but how they’re cooked and how much we’re eating.
A 2017 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found frequent consumption of fried potatoes is associated with increased mortality, while the consumption of unfried potatoes is not. Oil in small quantities is a good source of healthy fats but can present health challenges if consumed in large quantities.
At its core, potato chips can be made (even at home) with three ingredients – potatoes, salt and oil. The closer you get to those core ingredients the better, says licensed dietitian nutritionist Abra Pappa.
“I love including potatoes in a really healthy, well-balanced diet,” she says. “What happens when we take a potato and thin slice it and then fry it in a vat of oil … it changes the quality of that food being a potentially health-supportive food.”
The healthiest options at the store are chips fried in better quality oil like olive, avocado or coconut oil, Pappa says. You can also try a baked or air-fried chip.
“Is it just potatoes, salt, maybe avocado oil? That’s a pretty darn good chip,” Pappa says. “No, it’s not a health food by any means, no I still don’t think we should be having it every day, but it’s certainly an upgrade from the deep-fried-in-vegetable-oil scenario.”
The obvious solution here would be making chips at home in the oven or air fryer, using a mandolin to slice your potatoes thin.
You can also hunt for an alternative chip, like crunchy chickpeas or ones made with other vegetables, lentils or beans, though it’s still important to flip the bag over and read the ingredients. A sweet potato chip won’t be healthier than a regular potato chip if it’s deep-fried the same way.
But a greater message for chip lovers – if an alternative, “healthier” chip doesn’t hit the craving spot just right, don’t force yourself to make a switch.
“Kale chips are delicious as a crunchy kale bite … but it’s not a potato chip,” Pappa says. “Let’s not try to pretend these things are going to take the place of the sensation of eating a potato chip.”
Your next best option may be managing the amount you’re eating.
Do Healthy Chips Exist?
So do healthy chips exist? Not really. Chips aren’t a nutritional food in the way vegetables or proteins are, but there are ways you can still enjoy them in moderation. The problem is that we often eat them in excess, Pappa says.
Chips are hyper-palatable foods, meaning their combination of fat, sugar, sodium and carbohydrates makes them addictive and artificially rewarding to eat. Lay’s commercials in the 1960s make scientific sense – “Betcha can’t eat just one” is how food manufacturers keep shelves stocked and American mouths full.
“Really, potato chips are a once-in-a-while food,” she says. “If we go back to that and not thinking about them as an every day or every week food … that sets a little bit of a different scene in regards to how we’re interacting with that.”
But they’re an enjoyable treat regardless, and Pappa makes the case that you’ll actually enjoy each bite more if you set up some guardrails. Here’s how she suggests enjoying chips in moderation:
• Serve yourself a bowl from the bag of chips
• Buy individual-size chip bags
• Grab a helping and then move away from the chip bowl at parties
Everybody is different, however, and those with cardiovascular health concerns may not want to chance moderation at all, Pappa says.
Are Sun Chips healthy?
Sun Chips are sometimes given a health halo because they’re made with whole grains as opposed to potatoes. Starches digest faster than grains, so Sun Chips, which are made with corn, wheat, rice flour and oat flour, may not give you as much of a blood sugar spike.
But Sun Chips are still fried in canola oil, the same as Lay’s potato chips, which use a vegetable oil combination of “Canola, Corn, Soybean, and/or Sunflower oil.”
What about baked chips?
Baked chips are a healthier option, as they’re not cooked in as large of a quantity of oil, but it still depends on what kind of oil is used in the baking process.
“You can make that fit in just about any healthy diet, but we’re always going to want to still go through the process … what kind of oil is used?” Pappa says. “I’d probably prefer a potato chip fried in a better oil than a potato chip that’s baked in and uses vegetable oil.”
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