Secrets of the Chip Aisle

What’s the difference between regular potato chips and “kettle-cooked” ones?

Kettle-cooked chips use a batch process. This means the chips are washed, sliced, and fried in batches. Other mass-market chips use a continuous process: Raw potatoes go in one end, and a huge conveyor system moves the potatoes down the line, through the cutter, the fryer, the seasoning application, and into their bags—barely touched by human hands. Oil temperatures and times are usually calibrated by computers. This means that potato chips can be made cheaper and with more consistency.

But in batch processing, the oil is harder to control. It’s the same phenomenon you experience when you drop raw vegetables into a pot of boiling water: The temperature of the liquid drops and takes a while to heat up again. As a result, there’s some variation in the color of the chips. But these days, consumers don’t necessarily want chips white and predictable, and batch variances have been turned into a marketing advantage. Kettle Chips has built a business on them.

I notice that Lay’s Light chips have olestra in them, but the scary olestra warning about “leakage” is not there anymore. What gives?

Olean is the brand name for olestra, a “no-fat cooking oil” developed by Procter & Gamble. P&G claims that Olean “travels through the body unchanged like any poorly absorbed food components, such as high-fiber bran.”

Apparently, in the early years of olestra’s life, it did cause some, ahem, relaxation. (Check out one man’s experiment, if you dare. It’s gross.) So in 1996 when the FDA approved it for use in salty snacks, products had to carry the buzz-kill warning that they may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools in some people. Yum! Pass those chips! It turns out that the side effect was no different than what we experience eating normal fried foods like Pringles (a P&G product) and Doritos (from Frito-Lay). After reviewing the studies, in 2003 the FDA eliminated the need for olestra warnings.

But once a brand name is linked in consumers’ minds with something like “anal leakage,” the damage is done. Frito-Lay discontinued its Wow! brand olestra snacks and reintroduced them as Lay’s Light and Doritos Light. Sneaky marketing, perhaps, but according to scientific studies on olestra, the risk is minimal—nowhere near that of sorbitol, erithrytol, and other “polyols” used in low-carb foods and sugar-free products like chewing gum. And these require no warnings.

Why do potato chips use MSG?

MSG is a flavor enhancer. And the excessive use of flavor enhancers is one of the dirty little food secrets of the snack industry.

The most common flavor enhancer is MSG, or monosodium glutamate. People are wary of MSG, so a sneaky way of working MSG into a product is by using soy sauce, which contains a naturally occurring version of MSG. This allows you to put soy sauce—not MSG—on your label.

Flavor enhancers intensify the flavors of other ingredients. They create complete, round flavors. Snack companies create a perfectly round flavor, then back it off just a notch to get you to reach for more. You know that old Lay’s ad campaign “Betcha can’t eat just one”? Well, betcha didn’t know it was because it was loaded with flavor enhancers.

Another reason, says Carolyn Richards, chief flavor architect for Kettle Foods, is that many companies use flavor enhancers “as a cost-saving substitute for real food ingredients.” Kettle uses powdered ingredients naturally high in glutamates—like Parmesan and yeast extract.

Barb Stuckey is executive VP for Mattson, the food and beverage product development firm; author of a food trade newsletter column; and a former restaurant reviewer.

Photograph by Chris Andre