Why Potato Chips Aren’t Always The Worst Option

Note: The following is a guest post by Andy Bellatti, MS. He is the creator of the Small Bites blog, where this post originally appeared.  Andy is on the Registered Dietitian track at New York University’s Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health.

Okay, quick.
You’re standing in front of a vending machine a few hours after having finished lunch, in search of a savory snack.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s say you are at an all-day workshop in some random building, you didn’t bring a snack with you, and there’s another three hours until you get home and can fix yourself dinner.

The vending machine offers you the following options: plain potato chips, tortilla chips, pretzels, and crackers.

Which would you choose to get the most nutritional bang for your buck?  If you said potato chips — you are RIGHT.

Yes, you read correctly.  Let me explain.

A one-ounce bag of Lay’s potato chips contains:

  • 150 calories
  • 10 grams fat (1 gram saturated)
  • 180 milligrams sodium

A one-ounce bag of tortilla chips provides:

  • 140 calories
  • 7 grams fat (1 gram saturated)
  • 125 milligrams sodium

Let’s take a look at what a one-ounce bag of pretzels adds up to:

  • 100 calories
  • 0 grams fat
  • 580 milligrams sodium

Finally, here is what you get from a one-ounce bag of crackers (i.e. Wheat Thins)

  • 150 calories
  • 6 grams fat (1 gram saturated)
  • 280 milligrams sodium

Let’s discuss.

Although many people are automatically sold by their absence of fat, I have issues with pretzels.  I consider them to be a nutritionally lame snack.

Not only are most of them entirely comprised of refined white flour, they also lack the three nutrients that provide a feeling of satiety, or fullness: fat, protein, and fiber.

The problem with foods that offer negligible amounts of those three nutrients is that it takes quite a bit of their calories to feel satisfied.  Snacking on 150 calorie of almonds, for example (which contain fat, protein, and fiber), leaves you fuller for longer than that same amount of calories from pretzels.

Although crackers like Wheat Thins have some fat, they are mostly made with white flour.  Pass.

That brings us to tortilla chips and potato chips.

Calorically, they are almost equal.  Although both have the same amount of saturated fat, tortilla chips have a few less grams of total fat and a slightly lower sodium content.

However, it is what you don’t see on nutrition labels that gives potato chips the edge — potassium!

A one-ounce serving of potato chips provides, on average, 460 milligrams of potassium — as much as a medium banana.  That same amount of tortilla chips?  Sixty milligrams.

Remember, adequate potassium intake is a crucial tool against hypertension (cutting back on sodium is only part of the equation).  Coincidentally, the average US diet is too high in sodium and too low in potassium.

The additional 65 milligrams of sodium in potato chips (compared to corn chips) is a moot point when you consider they come bundled with that much potassium.

It also doesn’t hurt that the ingredient list for potato chips (such as Lay’s) is nice and basic: potatoes, oil, and salt.  No extra junk.

Let me be perfectly clear — this is not a recommendation to get your potassium from potato chips.  Nor am I christening potato chips as a healthy snack when you’re on the run.

However, nutrition is about making the most out of whatever choices you have available.  You aren’t always going to have fresh fruits, nuts, organic vegetables and whole grains at your disposal, so it’s always good to be prepared for moments like these.

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  • http://www.palateworks.com carol

    It’s true that snack foods can have some redeeming values, but as a nutritionist I would hesitate to make a blanket statement that potato chips are better than the other snacks mentioned. As with all food products, nutrition can vary widely between brands of the same type of snack, as well as among products by the same brand (e.g., a “cool ranch” flavor versus plain; a whole grain pretzel or cracker versus non-whole grain, etc.).

    Then there is the whole issue of sodium content in manufactured products. It can vary widely from batch to batch of the same product… so something that says “85 mg” on the label might actually have 140+ mg (I’ve tasted this difference in many snack products and have heard manufacturers admit that it happens). And then there’s the generally higher fiber content of whole grain corn products (tortilla chips, etc.) versus potato chips; or the vitamin C in potato chips (not huge in potato chips, but totally lacking in tortilla chips). And why not include consideration of acrylamide content (much higher in fried and baked potato products than corn products)? Or the fact that potassium is not that hard to find — it’s in all vegetables and fruits. The ratio of sodium to potassium intake is the real problem, so decreasing sodium is also effective in reducing the ratio.

    A lot of these nutrition “comparisons” of food products are a somewhat simplistic lesson in hair splitting if only the printed Nutrition Facts label is being considered.

    PS: I’d go with the tortilla chips, unless they’re flavored.

  • http://smallbites.andybellatti.com Andy Bellatti

    Carol,

    As a nutritionist myself, allow me to clarify your concerns.

    I specifically made mention to potato chips like Lay’s because they solely consist of potatoes, oil, and salt.

    Additionally, I have yet to ever see 100% whole grain pretzels in vending machines (most ‘whole grain pretzels’ are a mix of white and whole grain flours).

    A one-ounce bag of tortilla chips (even made with whole grain corn) provides, on average, just one more gram of fiber than a bag of potato chips. Therefore, citing fiber as a reason to choose tortilla chips is a moot point.

    Acrylamide content? Completely irrelevant when you are talking about a one-ounce bag of potato chips (remember, this post is not encouraging daily consumption of potato chips, simply helping people make a smarter choice in this particular situation).

    Your point that potassium is not hard to find in vegetables and fruits is also irrelevant. The recommendation of potato chips is WITHIN THE SPECIFIC CONTEXT of having to choose between potato chips, tortilla chips, pretzels,and crackers. That is why I specifically mention this is not me condoning eating potato chips for potassium. I do not appreciate strawman arguments.

    I still don’t understand why you would go with the tortilla chips. They are essentially the EXACT same thing as potato chips, minus the potassium.

  • carol

    Then it sounds like we agree that there is really no significant advantage to potato chips (see potassium follow-up below). And that was my point — that none has any significant advantage, and therefore “Which would you choose to get the most nutritional bang for your buck?” has no right answer.

    PS: All the tortilla chips I buy also have just 3 ingredients. There are 100s of such products out there. They also provide some potassium, although it often isn’t stated (not required). Plus a little more protein than potato chips, while we’re at it. But still… nothing significant enough to pick a “winner.”

    PPS: Potassium is not irrelevant in the context of the sodium issue, and one’s daily (i.e., whole picture) diet. Potassium is simply not a good reason to eat potato chips rather than another marginal food. It’s like telling someone to eat butter to get their vitamin A.

    PPPS: While the jury is still out on acrylamide, it is certainly high in fried potato products, and is still considered a carcinogen in California and elsewhere: “Our test results show that single servings of popular potato chips have acrylamide levels hundreds of
    times what Prop 65 allows and what the World Health Organization consider safe in a single glass of
    water,” said James Wheaton, president of the Environmental Law Foundation.

  • http://smallbites.andybellatti.com Andy Bellatti

    Carol,

    No, we don’t agree that there is no advantage to potato chips over other popular vending machine snacks. Potato chips (again, we are talking about a Lay’s type of plain potato chip here) are less processed, offer more potassium, and provide more satiety than pretzels or crackers.

    I know potassium is not required on nutrition labels. In fact, that was exactly why I wrote this post. It is often what is MISSING on nutrition labels that is of value! Potato chips have 6 to 7 times as much potassium as corn chips, hands down. You will NEVER find a corn chip that comes close to having as much potassium as potato chips.

    An extra gram of protein and fiber are meaningless; 700% more potassium is significant.

    As for your PPS: I specifically made a point that I am NOT recommending potato chips as a “go to snack” for potassium. I am simply helping people make the better choice at a vending machine when faced with certain options.

    And potassium IS a big deal because the average US diet is too low in it (similarly, an extra gram of protein means nothing because the average US diet is more than sufficient in that nutrient).

    As for acrylamide — it is in MANY foods, not just potato chips. Most high-carb snacks (including corn chips) have just as much. That is why these foods should not be eaten frequently.

  • carol

    Andy,
    Calm down and eat some fruit, beans or greens for potassium, and much more, during the day in addition to your bag of chips/snacks… whatever version you choose. A one ounce snack is not going to make a big diff in your daily diet, and if someone only eats snack foods, then that’s a different audience and problem. As for the protein, I only mentioned it (albeit small) in tortilla chips because you used protein as one of the reasons almonds are better than pretzels, which I agree with. A little protein (like fiber) is good in carb foods not because we need more protein but because it slows the glucose metabolism. And watch the use of percentages… 700% more potassium does not mean it meets your DRV (the potato chips provide 13%; this particular tortilla chip 2%). Meanwhile, the tortilla chips provide 5% of your daily sodium max and 11% of your fat max, when the potato chips cost 7.5% of your sodium and 15% of your fat. Take your pick.
    Peace.

  • http://smallbites.andybellatti.com Andy Bellatti

    @carol

    Carol,

    You clearly are not interested in sensible debate. Otherwise, you wouldn’t keep trying to argue a point that I never made. I KNOW fruits, beans, and greens are sources of potassium.

    As I have now said on multiple occasions (which you still choose to conveniently ignore whenever you reply), my post SPECIFICALLY points out that I am not advocating for potato chips to be someone’s “go to” source for potassium. The post clearly indicates that this advice is within a specific context. If you are unable to grasp that and instead want to hear yourself argue against something that was never said, go right ahead.

    Again, if you read carefully, you would have seen that my comparison between almonds and pretzels was not just about protein. It had to do with fat, protein, and fiber — 3 nutrients that help achieve satiety that are fully present in almonds and completely absent in pretzels.

    As for “watching my percentages.” Excuse me? I never implied that a serving of potato chips meets the potassium Daily Value (which is DV, by the way, not DRV). I simply stated the simple fact that 1 ounce of potato chips offers 700% more potassium than tortilla chips. I NEVER said they provide 700% of the Daily Value. Again, this tendency you have to put words in my mouth is not only worrisome, but also disrespectful.

    The fact that you keep pointing out sodium percentages is laughable, since you have to consider that the potato chips simultaneously offer a high amount of potassium. I’m surprised that as a nutritionist you can’t grasp this concept.

    This is my last response to you. Clearly, you are not interested in sensible debate. Instead, you’d rather make up arguments in your own head and not even take the time to read a post carefully and thoroughly before responding to it.

  • carol

    Hi again Andy,

    I’ve simply been pointing out facts and a different (I think a bigger picture, but that’s my opinion) perspective, although not so far off yours, when you take the time to read my comments (e.g., about fiber and protein together in a snack food being a good thing). Not screaming, insulting, etc., like you. Ciao.

    PS: Check your FDA regs at CFR 101.9(c) and (d) — the DV is simply what RDI and DRV are abbreviated/combined to be expressed as in a Nutrition Facts panel. Certain food components are expressed as DRV (such as sodium, fat, fiber, etc.) and others as RDI (vitamins and other micro-nutrients). I won’t go into why this is.

  • http://smallbites.andybellatti.com Andy Bellatti

    Carol,

    In your quest to point out facts, you deliberately misconstrued what I wrote and argued against points I never made. A great way to stifle — rather than stimulate — conversation.

    Thank you, but there is no need to school me on the difference between DV, DRI, and DRV. I am perfectly familiar with those concepts. Again, rather than own up to a mistake you made, you feel the need to lecture.

    May you have a fruitful and successful career ahead of you.

  • carol

    Andy,

    Are we really up to Round 4?

    What was the mistake you are referring to? I thought we were discussing which nutrition details are significant vis-a-vis the premise of the post (at least I was), and whether the premise is meaningful.

    I agree that potato chips have more potassium than the other snacks. My point is that this does not warrant a headline that will have many people grabbing for potato chips (of all varieties and flavors, not just the single variety and brand you mentioned, each with different nutrition pluses and minuses, and many with inaccurate nutrition info — sodium, especially) as if they are better than other snacks when this is just 6 or 7% of one’s daily calories (we all know things often get misinterpreted/extrapolated whenever nutrition comparisons are declared), and potassium is not the only difference/factor to consider.

    As for DRV, I was simply replying to your lecture, if you will, that the potassium intake recommendation is represented by “Daily Value (which is DV, by the way, not DRV).” This is not a big deal, but when I corrected you, there was another blow-up. I think it’s possible your ego is what’s getting in the way of real discussion. If I happened to touch on “points [you] never made,” how is that stifling conversation? Additional relevant points/topics = additional conversation.

    And for some reason, I don’t get the impression you are sincere in that final statement.

    Until next time…

  • http://smallbites.andybellatti.com Andy Bellatti

    Carol,

    I am done. I have much more productive things to focus my energies on. Goodbye.

  • http://smallbites.andybellatti.com Andy Bellatti

    Carol,

    I am done. I have much more productive things to focus my energy on than “converse” with someone who can’t follow simple concepts and instead chooses to look for holes where there aren’t any.

    Goodbye!

  • carol

    Ouch! You got in a parting dig … but glad we can put this thing to rest. I’ll second the waste of time.

    Cheers

  • Rebecca

    Hi Andy,

    Just wanted to say that your point came through loud and clear and there was no confusion as to you recommending chips the snack of choice for regular consumption.
    :)

  • Mary

    Hi Andy,
    I have to watch how much potassium I get because I had a nasty attack of PSVT (Paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia) when mine got too low because I had skipped both breakfast and lunch. Now, I’m on the lookout for what things I can find in the building vending machine DO have decent amounts of potassium — there are only so many bananas and baked potatoes I can eat in one day!
    Thanks for the info!
    Mary

  • bob

    great post.
    IMO this article does not make any “blanket statements”

  • tom

    Andy, this is one of the dumber things i have read, and your arguments in the comments prove it. Basically you argue for something on a situational setting, then when someone points out the flaws you act childish. I am not defending Carol here either, she is just as guilty. The whole concept of this is flawed, if you want a snack just freaking have one, and don’t do it to often and vary it so you don’t get in the habit of eating the same crappy-for-you food. A couple calories or mg of sodium isn’t gonna blow anyones diet. Don’t waste everyones time with your flawed writing and lack of thought put into it.

  • Nomdeguerre77

    Thank you so much for this post, Andy! I was wondering how much potassium chips have and you answered that for me. I also like the fact that you specifically say you do not recommend chips (etc.) as a go to for nutrition and are simply trying to inform people. Job well done! Thanks again!

  • http://www.lowpotassiumdiet.info low potassium diet

    Hi, 

    Its brilliant post guys, 

    I liked it. 

    Thanks for it.

  • Reggie

    Wow, Carol is an idiot, plain and simple. I feel sorry for anyone who was unlucky enough to hire her as a nutritionist. She needs to take a class in philosophy (to learn logic). But I think it would be far too confusing for her to grasp. If she actually earned any kind of real education, I’m sorely disappointed in the system in general, but mostly the school that granted her a degree (or certification).

    Otherwise, great post. I’m happy to know what the better choices are among snack food options if trail mix is all out in the vending machine. I’ll take the small trade off and opt for the potassium that I need anyway. Thanks!

  • Alexander Ali, MS, MPH

    Andy, thanks for the post.  As a fellow nutritionist myself, I agree and support your post. 

    Additionally, with tortilla chips you have to deal with the likelihood of GMO-based corn (unless you chose organic of course).  Personally, I go for lightly-salted organic blue tortilla chips.

  • Jake

    Lays potato chips are a good quick post-workout snack after being in the heat for over an hour, and losing upwards of 5 pounds of water weight. That’s a lot of electrolytes lost. So, a 1 oz bag of lays potato chips has plenty of potassium to give you a pick me up!

  • LOL

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone whine as hard as these people.

  • another dietitian

    As a dietitian working in a hospital environment, I’m going to have to agree with Andy here. Carol’s additions, while generally good info, are irrelevant here. It’s a bit silly to use them as an argument for this particular vending machine situation. Plus, at least where I live vending machines are almost never (I’ve never seen a single one, for that matter, but they might exist) stocked with plain corn chips but always have plain salted potato chips available. The potato chip is an obvious winner over a corn chip with 20+ ingredients.

    We also have small bags of plain Lay’s type chips available in our food & drinks trolleys for patients to consume precicely because of their potassium content, along with fresh bananas and other fruit (and this in a European hospital where much attention is paid to good quality, nutritious food low in sodium and saturated and transfats, dense in micronutrients, and high in fibre for most patients). Why, you might ask? Potato chips can be appetising to patients with generally low appetite, they offer some extra calories in relatively small quantity of food which is needed for the healing process, and indeed, they are a good source of potassium for people who get too little of it or lose too much of it, for example many gastroenterology patients are fond of them. A little extra potassium from a source one can digest and absorb can make enough difference in blood potassium values for the doctor to forgo an often painful intravenous potassium infusion! A banana doesn’t always cut it if you can’t digest it.

    That’s not to say one should eat lots of chips every day, but that they are not necessarily a bad option in all situations at all times.

  • eric

    I eat a family size bag of kettle cooked potato chips, 1 pound of sharp cheddar cheese, a 2 liter bottle of club soda for dinner every night.

  • Steve

    The problem is processed meats that contain sodium nitrite, a mutagen capable of causing cancer. The other problem is overconsumption of refined sugar. As part of a balanced diet, potato chips are perfectly fine. They are a good source of Vitamin C, Vitamin K, potassium, tryptophan, protein, iron, fiber, folate, magnesium, lysine, phenylalanine, zinc and copper. I researched the USDA database to come up with these values and they are laid out on a spreadsheet. Potatoes are a powerhouse of nutrients. Just don’t eat them if they contain TRANS FATS. Enjoy. :-)