Chips are not food

Posted on April 22, 2013 - 3 Comments


As someone who has been in the natural healing industry for over two decades now, I still find it amazing how many of the food sales in this industry are based on chips and pop. This blog is about mostly about chips so I will only briefly touch on pop.



With regards to natural pop versus commercial sodas, well…a rose by any other name would taste as sweet. The average amount of simple carbohydrates found in a natural soda pop is about the same as that of a glass of orange juice or a bottle of cola: about 35 grams per 8 oz (1 cup) serving. A teaspoon of sugar weights about 5 grams so what we are looking at is the equivalent of about 7 spoonfuls of per drink. When we think about “big gulp” sizes, it is no wonder that it was recently found that the average teenager in the Canada ingests about 40 teaspoons of sugar per day (though this included natural sugars from food the majority of it was from refined sugars). Hello diabetes.


Now, of course a glass of orange juice does provide some potassium and vitamin C, along with a few other nutrients, so it is a better choice than a soda pop, even though it is still going to cause a blood sugar spike and crash (unless taken after exercise when it functions as a carb-load). But a natural carbonated soda, even though it may be sweetened with concentrated fruit juice, or evaporated cane juice, etc, will provide no nutrients to speak of, and will still give you an excessive amount of simple sugars.


Currently the closest thing to a healthy soda pop is Kombucha, which is naturally carbonated, and where most of the sugar has been consumed by the bacteria and turned into lactic acid. This form of lactic acid (different from that created in the body following exercise) supports friendly bacteria colonization and digestive health.



I have a theory as to why chips in all their various forms are so addictive. There is of course the addictive nature of salt, as in “you can’t just eat one.” The highest amount of sodium in the diet is found in animal protein and at an early point in our evolution we would have had a strong affinity for animal protein, as it would have been difficult to obtain since you had to hunt and kill for it, rather than running down to the grocery store. Salt itself being a necessary electrolyte was such an important dietary component that the word salary was originally derived from salt as a form of payment.


On top of that, my theory as to why we are hooked on the three snack dwarfs, Fatty, Salty and Crunchy, is because they mimic the eating of bone marrow. Bone marrow is one of the most nutritious foods and was commonly consumed by our ancestors. To this day it is considered a superior foods in Chinese medicine used for healing and for supporting “kidney essence”, which they believe is necessary for longevity and vitality. Add some ketchup (in the case of fries) and you have a bit of blood-mimic to finish off the illusion.



People somehow think that if they buy their chips in a health food store that they are now “healthy” but nothing could be further from the truth. I used to tell those who asked my opinion, that eating chips was the equivalent of chain smoking, as far as damage to the body goes. This may be a bit of an exaggeration, but the hard truth is that high temperature frying of food in vegetable oils that are heated repeatedly creates a product saturated in bad fats, fats which cause a lot of free radical damage in the body. Just like cigarettes. On top of the damage from trans-fats created by repeated heating of vegetable oils we have the new specter of acrylamide.



Acrylamide is a chemical compound used in industry, including wastewater treatment, papermaking, ore processing, and to manufacture dyes and permanent press fabrics. It is a known neurotoxin (median lethal dose in rabbit = 150 mg/kg) and animal carcinogen. Its discovery in some cooked starchy foods led to concerns about the potential cancer risk of those foods.


In 2002 Swedish scientists found acrylamide occurring in starchy foods, including potato chips, French fries, and crackers that had been heated to high temperatures. It occurred most commonly in fried or baked goods, but did not occur in foods that had been boiled, nor in foods that were not heated.
A small scale study analyzed 6 subjects, who consumed food containing a measured amount of acrylamide, over a 72-hour period. The conclusion showed that “most of the acrylamide ingested with food is absorbed in humans.”


The longer a starchy food is heated and the higher the temperature (anything above 120C or 248F), the higher the levels of acrylamide it contains. This formation is believed to be due to the reaction of the amino acid asparagine and sugars (glucose, fructose, etc) under high heat. The temperature that is required to produce crispness is the same as that which creates acrylamide, so any crisp snack from crackers to breakfast cereal flakes have to all be suspected of containing acrylamide.


Acrylamide has also been found in cocoa powder, roasted almonds and coffee. A study of Swedish women in 2005, found that their highest intake of acrylamide was from coffee (54%), fried potatoes (12%), and crisp bread (9%). The top 10 foods with the most acrylamide are as follows: French Fries (made in restaurants); French Fries (oven baked); Potato Chips; Breakfast Cereals; Cookies; Brewed Coffee; Toast; Pies and Cakes; Crackers; Soft Bread. (Surprisingly, there’s more acrylamide in medium-roast coffee than in dark roast.)



The good news is that the FDA and the WHO in 2002 concluded that the intake of acrylamide required to cause neuropathy was about 500 times more that the average dietary intake, and the amount required to reduce fertility was about 2,000 times more that the average intake.


The bad news is that they felt that much lower levels were linked to increased cancer risk, based on animal studies. When given in high-doses to rats, acrylamide increased tumors in the nervous system, oral cavity, peritoneum, thyroid gland, mammary glands and uterus.


Since then several studies have been done using humans, charting acrylamide intake based on food frequency data and its effect on cancer risk. Fortunately, large studies done in Sweden and Italy and the U.S., found no link between acrylamide intake and most cancers. However, a Dutch study on 62,573 women aged 55–69 years did find a link between acrylamide intake and increased risks of postmenopausal endometrial and ovarian cancer.


Critics of the aforementioned studies finding no association between cancer and acrylamide ingestion, have pointed out that food frequency questionnaires (the basis of the human studies) do not give an accurate measure of actual acrylamide exposure. And in 2008, a study testing blood acrylamide levels did find a 2.7-fold increase in risk for estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer for every 10-fold increase of acrylamide ingested.


In 2010 the European Chemical Agency added acrylamide to the list of substances of very high concern. And, the World Health Organization currently states that “Acrylamide belongs to the group of chemicals thought to have no reliably identifiable ‘threshold’ of effects, meaning that very low concentrations will also result in very low risks, but not in zero risk: Some risk is always present when the chemical is ingested. However, for these carcinogens, risk is thought to increase with increasing exposure. Very low risks (even of cancer), such as those that are less than one in one million, are considered to be acceptable to some consumers. To others this is unacceptable. The important pre-requisite for any decision is, however, a clear picture of the nature and level of the risk, as well as the potential for lowering this level. This clear picture does not exist for acrylamide at present.”  (Article)


The problem with considering acrylamide to be a low risk substance, is that the above material, like with most scientific approaches to dangerous food contaminants, only looks at the substance in question in isolation. Realistically, acrylamide (or any other pesticide, fungus, or heavy metal) is not ingested in isolation, they are present in a number of foods consumed, and no one looks at the total toxic load. Nor do they look at how these substances might interact with each other to produce compound effects, or even to produce new toxic substances.



In February 2009, Health Canada announced that they were assessing whether acrylamide, is a hazard to human health and whether any regulatory action needs to be taken. Health Canada met with members of the food industry to provide an update of its assessment on acrylamide in food, and encouraged the food industry to pursue reduction efforts for acrylamide in processed foods. Health Canada continues to conduct research on new methods to further minimize acrylamide prevalence in food.


In 2012 Health Canada permitted the use of asparaginase in certain food products. Asparaginase is an enzyme that will reduce the amount of the amino acid asparagine, which is naturally present in certain foods and reacts with other components of the food to form acrylamide under high temperatures. Adding asparaginase to foods high in asparagine will reduce the amount of acrylamide formed during cooking.


Charts available on the Health Canada website indicate the average intake of acrylamides for different age groups. Results of the probabilistic exposure assessment show that children (from 1 to 8 years of age) ingest higher amounts of acrylamide through the diet, on a body weight basis, than other age groups. This is probably due to acrylamides being found in certain baby foods (especially those containing prunes and sweet potatoes), and the fact that children eat more breakfast cereals than adults. This is something parents should be aware of when it comes to regulating their children’s intake of chips, fries and breakfast cereals.


It was surprising to find acrylamides in prunes given that they are not heated to a high temperature. One study concluded that: “The results clearly indicate that substantial amounts of acrylamide can be generated at temperatures lower than 100°C under conditions that resemble the drying of foods, such as plums. Acrylamide in prunes and prune juice very likely originates from asparagine which is present in the starting material, i.e. plums.”  (Study)


The Health Canada website also offers a list of the acrylamide content of a variety of foods. As well, the website offers some tips on reducing acrylamide levels in foods cooked at home (mostly involving reducing intensity and duration of cooking certain foods).  (Link)



As far as my analogy of chips being as bad as cigarettes, it doesn’t hold true in the case of acrylamide. Cigarette smoking is a major acrylamide source, causing a three times greater increase in blood acrylamide levels than any food. But then acrylamide is only one of the factors in our chips. The other main issue being the high-temperature heating of vegetable oils.


I’ve heard it said that eating potato chips is the equivalent of 12 tablespoons of butter on a baked potato. It’s important to realize that potato chips and crackers are loaded not only with fat, but with bad fat, often including trans-fats. An average-sized bag of potato chips can contain between 15 and 20 grams of trans-fats.

Lately companies have been responding to consumer concerns and gov’t regulation by implying that they are reducing or removing trans-fats from their products. However, what they are usually doing is reducing the serving size enough so that it now has less than 500 mg of trans-fat. At this point they can legally qualify as no or zero trans-fat.


Trans-fats technically occur mostly in hydrogenated oils, oils that were liquid at room temperature, but after processing are hard at room temperature (like Crisco and margarine). But even if a vegetable oil has not been hydrogenated, when it’s overheated, it deteriorates chemically.


The formation of toxic compounds is dependent on the type of oil and temperature, and how often it is reheated. The decomposition of these oils results in the creation of hydroperoxides and then increasing levels of aldehydes. Both are compounds that cause free radical damage in the body. And, if those chips are old, the rancid taste often masked by excessive flavoring, there is further free radical damage.



When looking at chips we have to also consider that so many natural-looking chip products are made with corn and oils like canola that are commonly genetically modified. If these chips do not use organic corn and canola oil, and do not specifically state that they are non-gmo, then you must assume that the ingredients are genetically modified. And there are many reasons for not eating gmo foods (see my blog on the subject for more information: Blog)


A caution for those with celiac disease and those on gluten-free diets: most “gluten-free” foods contain GMO’s because the primary ingredient in most gluten-free foods is corn, and about 85% of the conventional corn grown in the USA is genetically modified corn. The only gluten-free foods that don’t contain GM corn are those that don’t use corn as an ingredient, those that state the corn is non-gmo, or that use certified organic corn.


Finally, we must consider the flavorings, which usually include excessive levels of refined salt and often MSG. In a natural foods product MSG can be hidden in ingredients referred to as Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, or simply in substances referred to as spices or flavoring. While a certain amount of salt is required in the diet, the refined salt used in snack foods has had all the natural minerals stripped out of it, leaving only sodium chloride. Natural salts contain only 35% sodium, the rest being a mix of other minerals including a fair bit of magnesium. While refined salt is a technically alkaline substance, in the body it creates acidity and steals magnesium.



There was a time that movie theaters used coconut oil to make their popcorn, but then it was revealed that the amount of saturated fat in movie popcorn was up there with chowing down on about 3 Big Macs. Theaters responded by switching to canola oil, at that time perceived to be a healthier oil because it was not saturated. Unfortunately, they had gone from bad to worse, since canola oil is almost always genetically modified, and, as a polyunsaturated oil, it is subject to breaking down under high heat.


Now that we know coconut oil can actually be good for you, and that the body requires some natural saturated fats, the ideal movement would be for chips to be cooked in coconut oil. This would prevent the damage from bad oils but would not save us from the acrylamide, unless non-starchy substances were used for the base of the chips (tofu chips, anyone?).


One alternative to chips is air-popped popcorn which since it doesn’t use the high heat of oil-popped popcorn, has a much lower acrylamide level. Use organic popcorn of course. I like to mix organic butter with some flax or coconut oil, and then top with natural salt (Himalayan or Celtic) and some nutritional yeast, for a cheese-corn flavor.


Researchers from the University of Scranton, Pennsylvania, discovered that a serving of popcorn has up to 300 mg of antioxidants, almost double the amount found in a serving of most fruits. They also found that the hulls of the popcorn have the highest concentration of antioxidants and fiber. Popcorn was found to have such a high level of antioxidants because it is made up of only 4% water, while fruits and vegetables are more diluted, being made of up to 90% water.   (Article)


I’m not going to say that I don’t ever hang out with Fatty, Salty and Crunchy, and in fact we used to be good friends. But the older you get the more you have to pick your poisons selectively, and now I prefer to use popcorn and roasted nuts for my salty snacks, getting less toxins and more nutrients but still satisfying my desire for crunchy bone marrow.

  1. Thanks! So raw nuts, air popped popcorn…. what about cheese curls, Bearitos no salt no fat bagged popcorn? Baked pretzels?

    • I am not a fan of raw nuts. Both nuts and seeds have enzyme inhibitors, which can be neutralized by either roasting or soaking in water for 24 hrs. Cheese curls are generally a low quality “food” unless they were made with organic corn and coconut oil. Polyunsaturated oils (vegetable oils) are used in most chip-like products, and being mostly omega 6 fatty acids they are of dubious value, aside from the fact that they are damaged by the heating process of deep frying. Pretzels, being made of wheat flour, are also not a healthy snack even though they are baked and not deep fried.

  2. As usual, great article with terrific scientific and health information. Thank you for great research and helping all of us who are parents and those who crave chips!

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