The short answer: Yes, it’s OK to eat chips . . . on national holidays. Chips can be one more reason to look forward to Memorial Day, 4th of July, and Labor Day but don’t make it a habit. They’re basically fried and salted starch.
As promised I took a close look at the chip aisle in the local grocery store. Here’s what I learned:
1. About 80% of the stuff in the chip aisle comes from one company: the Frito-Lay division of PepsiCo. Products include Lay’s, Ruffles, Tostitos, Cheetos, Fritos, Doritos, Sun Chips, Rold Gold, Lay’s Kettle Cooked, Tostitos Artisan Recipes, and Chester’s Puffcorn. Frito-Lay rules the aisle and grocery stores make a lot of money renting shelf space to the chip companies.
2. Whether made from potatoes or corn, the nutrition panel reveals the chips are pretty much the same: A 28-gram serving has about 140 calories, 6-10 grams of oxidized seed oil, 16-20 grams of refined carbs, and a dose of salt. (Pretzels, made from flour, have little or no oil but a lot more salt.)
3. The “original” chips are pretty simple: potatoes (or corn), oil and salt. It’s the flavored versions—cheesy, BBQ, sour cream and chives, etc.—that have the 20+ ingredient list of odd chemicals. Fewer ingredients is definitely better.
4. Chips are an unhealthy processed food, but the manufacturers are clever about dressing them up to look healthy. Potatoes become whole potatoes; salt is sea salt; corn is organic; and one brand uses expeller pressed oil. They don’t contain trans fats anymore, but the healthiness of the new high-oleic replacement oils is doubtful.
5. For those trying to avoid commercially fried foods (a good idea), some chips come baked and contain a little less oil. Or if you’ve figured out that a baked chip really isn’t much healthier, there is now a “popped” chip cooked using heat and pressure. There’s no end to how food-like stuff can be processed, is there?
6. This store had chips in two areas; the newer had a big sign “Wild Harvest Natural Foods” and included chips dressed up to look healthier. Natural Tostitos, Natural Cheetos, and Natural Lays seemed to have about the same ingredients as the old “unnatural” version but they sported a wholesome looking package and a higher price.
7. Best buy in the chip aisle? There isn’t one, really, you’re paying $3 to $6 a pound for unhealthy factory-processed commodities. The best buy is in your home: home-cooked popcorn is healthier, tastier, and lots cheaper.
Two closing thoughts:
First, thinking of popcorn brought new clarity to this principle: Our health depends on our choice of home-cooked meals over factory-processed foods. To protect the family health, we must do our own cooking. The person of modest means actually has an advantage here. Because eating out is a luxury they must do it less. And meals cooked at home from minimally-processed and natural foods will always be healthier. Call it a tender mercy for the humble.
Second, when we think about the processed food business we tend to lose a little of our faith in the goodness of man. (I’m already on record that women should head these companies.) So here’s a faith-restoring story: I have a friend of many years I greatly respect named Ken. An undiagnosed health condition (high blood pressure) resulted in kidney failure and Ken was facing the prospect of going on kidney dialysis. Dialysis isn’t easy; it takes a lot of courage and greatly restricts your life.
The only escape is to receive a kidney transplant, either from a cadaver or a compatible living person (most of us can get by on one of our two kidneys). There is a great shortage of donor kidneys—most of the people on dialysis will die without getting one. Cadaver kidneys are typically good for 10 years; living donor kidneys are good for 20-25 years. So it’s way better to get a kidney from a living donor (though even a cadaver kidney beats life on dialysis).
So here’s the good news: this past Friday, Ken received a transplant from an unknown living donor who chose to anonymously donate a kidney. Ken is doing well. And his anonymous donor has lifted my faith in the goodness of all humans.
Please share your ideas for healthy snacks to take the place of chips, or of kind acts that affirm the goodness of people. Oh, and Happy Mother's Day. Eat whatever you wish today, you've earned it.