Why Potato Chips Are Not As Unhealthy As You Think

Kettle chips are your friend.

The forbidden fruit of the vegetable world, and a refuge for the socially awkward at parties, potato chips are salty, oily, and compulsively eatable. Is there anything not dangerously awful about this beloved snack?

Actually, yes! In a wasteland of processed junk foods, potato chips stand out as a heroic option, usually featuring only three ingredients: potatoes, vegetable oil, and salt. Keep in mind, for the purposes of this discussion we're talking plain, salted potato chips. That's not to say you shouldn't explore the vast array of flavor concoctions out there, but, if you're trying to keep it healthy-ish, simple is your best bet.

While no one would mistake plain chips for a crisp salad, it's worth keeping their comparative benefits in mind when the munchies strike.

Are potato chips good for you?

We all know vegetables are healthy, and even though the USDA doesn’t count potato chips as a serving of vegetables (boo), the humble potato packs a wallop of potassium even in chip form. A 100g serving has 1,196mg of potassium—that’s more than a similarly sized banana and a good chunk of your daily recommended value of 3,500mg. Potato chips are beating a legit FRUIT in the potassium game, so obviously they’re going to slay their vending machine companions. Want to guess how much potassium Doritos have? That’s right. None. 

Vegetable oil also has its benefits—and so does salt, for that matter. Vegetable oil contains linolic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid, which is an important part of healthy diet according to a study by the University of Missouri and University of Illinois. While some fats can cause inflammation in the body, which is linked to heart disease, those are by and large animal fats, not vegetable oil. You can even find potato chips made with olive oil these days, which is fairly universally recognized as one of the healthiest members of the vegetable oil family.

You know what else is great about potato chips? What they don’t have.

Sitting here reading the ingredients on a bag of Kettle chips, I see potatoes, peanut oil, and sea salt. I don’t see preservatives, artificial flavoring, artificial colors, or sugar. You better believe all those things are present in Cheetos—and guess what, the artificial Yellow 6 color that gives Cheetos their signature orange hue is actually made from petroleum and causes kidney and adrenal gland tumors in animals. The virtuous potato chip would never do you like that.

“A lot of those preservatives and yellow dyes have been directly linked to different cancers, and they feed cancers,” says Dr. Scott Weiss, co-founder and clinical director of Bodhizone Physical Therapy and Wellness, who recommends baked or kettle-cooked potato chips. “We try to make anything artificial the absolute lowest thing we intake.”

Potato chips vs. candy

Let’s look at Skittles or Starburst. Unlike potato chips, they have no dietary fiber, protein, or potassium. What do they have? Sugar and corn syrup, and lots of it. A cup of Skittles has 76g—or 15 teaspoons (!) of sugar. These candies basically have no nutritional value, according to dietitian Molly Kimball. “Almost always, the traditional versions of fruity candy have sugar, corn syrup, and artificial colors and food dyes,” Kimball says. “All the stuff we don’t want is in Skittles, Starburst, and stuff.”

What about that acrylamide thing?

A few years back, researchers noticed French fries and potato chips contained a substance called acrylamide, a carcinogen. But it turns out that’s probably not a big deal, as no link between dietary acrylamide and cancer has been established, and acrylamide is present in many other foods.

Now let's be clear—we are not advocating for the practice of polishing of an entire Costco-sized bag of chips while you lounge on the couch all day. Potato chips should not be among your dietary staples—we're simply saying that, as satisfying genuine indulgences go, you could do a lot worse than a reasonably sized portion of potato chips.

Enjoy them in moderation (yes, it's possible), as part of a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. After all, you already knew anything fried shouldn’t count as a dietary staple, right? Right?  

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Missy Wilkinson feels vindicated because her junk food of choice is Zapp’s potato chips. Follow her on Twitter at @missy_wilkinson and Instagram at @nowlistenmissy.