potato chips 1

What I learned analyzing 3062 Potato Chips

August 13, 2015

No one thinks potato chips are healthy, but just how unhealthy are they?


Potato chips date back to the late 19th Century in the US and the UK.  They originally showed up as chef-cooked restaurant fare.  By the early 20th Century, chips began to be mass-produced for home consumption.

Until the 1950s, chips (or crisps  in the UK) consisted of potatoes, oil and salt.  In the mid 1950s, two entrepreneurs in Ireland and the US separately developed technologies  to add seasoning during manufacturing.  The first flavors produced were Cheese & Onion, Barbecue, and Salt & Vinegar flavor

The early potato chips were sold in tins.  Wax paper bags and the invention of cellophane allowed potato chips to become a mass market product. Today, chips are packaged in plastic bags, with nitrogen gas blown in prior to sealing to lengthen shelf life, and provide protection against crushing.


The data

Potatoes, Oil and Salt dominate the ingredient lists of the 3062 products.

Potatoes are listed on ingredient lists 100% of the time

Potatoes are frequently the first or second ingredient.

Interestingly, many brands qualify the type of potatoes.  The most popular adjectives are:

  • Dried Potatoes 10%
  • Choice Potatoes 5%
  • Select Potatoes 3%
  • Russet Potatoes  2%


96% of products contain vegetable oil

Vegetable oil is almost as common in potato chips as potatoes.  Corn and Sunflower oils are the most popular, with palm being the least.


Screen Shot 2015-08-12 at 6.06.58 PM


The breakdown of the oils is a bit disingenuous as products frequently write parenthetical details like ” Vegetable Oil (Contains One or More of the Following: Corn, Cottonseed, Soybean).”  Brands often do this to optimize costs and accuracy.  For example, should the cost of soybean oil increase or be unavailable, a brand with such packaging would not need to reprint a label to indicate the substitution of cottonseed oil.


18% of the chips list partially hydrogenated oil as an ingredient.  Partially hydrogenated fat molecules have trans fats, which may be the worst type of fat you can consume.  Trans fat intake has been linked to an increased risk of coronary heart disease by contributing to the buildup of plaque inside the arteries that may cause a heart attack.  The US Food and Drug Administration requires trans fat content be declared on the Nutrition Facts label and has since 2006.  The agency recently announced intent to remove artificial trans fat from the food supply and is giving food companies three years to comply.  Given the health concerns, why would you even purchase potato chips with partially hydrogenated oil?

Salt appears on ingredient lists 97% of the time

The problem with salt is sodium.  The average chip contains 206mg, almost 14% of the Daily Recommended value for adults.


The ingredients

~15% or 451 chips contained 2-3 ingredients.  The remainder were flavored or included additives for preservation and/or cheaper formulation.


As a result, the average ingredient length across the 3062 products was 16.3!



Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 5.38.14 AM




While the average sugar content across the 3062 products was 0.9g, many of the products contained added sugar.  The added sugars by frequency are:

  • Maltodextrin 51%
  • Sugar  43%
  • Fructose 38%
  • Dextrose 4%


The products with these added sugars often contained multiple variations of the additives with maltodextrin and sugar being the most frequent combination.



Disturbingly 32% of the products contained Monosodium glutamate.  The Center for Science in the Public Interest indicates consumers should consume this ingredient with caution.  Additionally, the use of MSG usually allows companies to reduce the amount of real ingredients in their foods and its inclusion in the ingredient list is a good proxy for heavy processed foods.



21% of the products contain artificial flavors or colors, with 6% containing caramel coloring.


Bad stuff

Additionally, as with cereals, TBHQ and BHT are sometimes (2% of the time) added to the chips or packaging for preservation.  According to the CSPI, these additives should be avoided.



Foodwise Bottomline

Optimize for potato chips with 4 ingredients or less.  Anything more than 3-4 ingredients and you start seeing ingredients beyond potato, oil, salt and vinegar.


Major brands with 3-4 ingredient length list products include:

  • Cape Cod
  • Deep River
  • Herr’s
  • Jay’s
  • Kettle
  • Ruffles
  • Lays
  • Zapps



Comments are closed.