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Whether picking something up for a party or sitting down to watch your favorite show with a snack, potato chips are a popular choice — in fact, Americans buy millions of dollars worth of the crunchy snack each year.
But although potatoes by themselves can be good for you, when they’re fried or baked or cooked anyway with unhealthy oils and high heat, they increase your risk of getting cancer and cause you to easily pack on some extra pounds.
A few potato chips every now and then is probably OK, especially if you make an effort to choose healthier varieties, but you should also try some alternatives. Whenever possible, you should get creative in the kitchen and make your own chips and chip-alternative creations.
Why potato chips aren’t healthy
Potatoes can be healthy — they are high in antioxidants, potassium, and contain other nutrients, especially certain varieties — but our faved ways of cooking them creates problems.
And potatoes aren’t really all that healthy. A Harvard blog post goes as far as saying potatoes should be considered a starch instead of a vegetable because of its high carb count. Potatoes increase blood sugar levels, and even though this can be reduced by eating them along with foods that contain protein, they still probably aren’t the best option for daily consumption. In the long term, excess carb intake likely increases your risk of heart disease.
Harvard’s Healthy Eating Pyramid even goes as far as removing potatoes from the fruits and veggies category and adding them to the “use sparingly” category.
Four reasons why potato chips are bad for you:
They contain cancer-causing chemicals. When carb-rich foods, like potatoes and grains, are cooked at high temperatures (above 212°F,) acrylamide (a cancer-causing and toxic chemical) is created — even when potatoes are baked, roasted or toasted. A 2005 report (PDF) by the Environmental Law Foundation found that all potato chip products tested exceeded the legal limit of acrylamide by a minimum of 39 times! (Acrylamide can be reduced if certain steps are taken, such as increasing product moisture, cooking products at lower temps and other changes mentioned in the report.)Also, acrylamide is not the only carcinogen produced by cooking with high heat. A three-year EU project known as Heat-Generated Toxicants (PDF) found that more than 800 heat-induced chemical compounds exist — 52 of which are potential carcinogens.
They contribute to weight gain. A long-term study found the foods that contributed most to weight gain:
- Potato chips
- Sugar-sweetened beverages
- Red meat
- Processed meats
Most brands are fried with highly processed vegetable oils. Most chips are fried in canola oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, corn oil, soy oil or cottonseed oil, or a combo of some of these oils. These oils have omega-6 fatty acids. These are essential, but most Americans consume too many omega-6 fats, which may increase the risk of heart disease.
Many brands are made with genetically modified ingredients: oils, potatoes, and flavorings. Some popular brands, such as Frito Lay, say they are getting rid of GMO potatoes, but most brands use some GMO ingredients.
Why you can’t stop eating potato chips
Potato chips are usually high in fat and salt, and they also contain sugar. Our bodies and brains are rewarded particularly for consuming fat, salt, and sugar (PDF) — something snack companies take advantage of.
Salt. It’s a flavor enhancer. We have salt receptors on our tongues, all over our mouths, and even in our stomachs.
Fat. Fat activates the reward centers of the brain.
Sugar. Even non-sweet potato chip varieties often contain sugar. We have sugar receptors in each of the 10,000 taste buds, which are direct links to our pleasure centers.
Read more from Michael Moss, the author of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.
Healthy alternatives to potato chips
When it comes to potato chips, making your own is most likely healthier. One tip for creating potato chips with less acrylamide is to soak raw potatoes in water for 15 to 20 minutes prior to roasting.
Try other potato chip alternatives. We’ve got recipes for kale chips, beet chips, lotus chips, chickpea and sesame crackers, chocolate wafers, and the world’s healthiest graham crackers. See the recipes. You might also try oven-baked taro chips, baked broccoli chips, or radish chips.
Snack on dehydrated veggies and fruits. Slice zucchini, sprinkle it with spices, such as Cajun spice, and then dry it until crispy. Or try dried banana slices or apple chips with cinnamon. If you don’t have a dehydrator, you can bake the fruits and veggies instead on the lowest setting possible and the door propped open.
Nibble some nuts. The same study that found which foods contributed to weight gain also found that nuts are associated with weight loss. Snack on almonds, walnuts, or other healthy nuts, but make sure you keep servings small.
Eat snacks that boost your mood. Potato chips make you happy? Try some healthy, mood-boosting snacks instead, like sunflower seeds.
Healthy potato chip product picks
Sometimes you simply want something that is crunchy and tasty that you don’t have to create yourself. When deciding what brands to choose, you might want to check out a review of 40 top brands by HealthCastle.com, a site run by dieticians. You can compare chips for fat, sodium, fiber, and sugar content.
Another thing you should do is read the ingredient list before choosing a product. Look for options with real food ingredients, without artificial additives and preservatives. And remember: Potato chips — even the baked ones — aren’t truly healthy, so don’t munch on too many or crunch on them too often.
Here are a few products to try:
Snip Chips are made with parsnips instead of potatoes. They are raw, vegan, organic certified (by the ASCO,) certified non-GMO, and gluten-free. Parsnips are healthy but so too is the added coconut. They come in Cheezy Herb Truffle (made with nutritional yeast,) Chipotle Lime Cilantro, and Dill Pickle.