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Why Potato Chips Aren’t Always The Worst Option

potato_chipsOkay, 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.


One Comment

  1. Ella said on August 15th, 2009

    The amount of times I’ve forced myself to eat pretzels! And I could have just had the potato chips, which is the tastiest vending machine snack. Thanks Andy!

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