Why are potato chips ridiculously delicious and addictive?
Yes, I’m a doctor, but I’m not a liar. People LOVE potato chips. I used to love chips like Common used to love H.E.R. (“I met this chip when I was 8 years old…”). For years, I was a chip connoisseur—that’s a more refined way of saying, ‘I was a chip addict.’ At one point in my life, if salt and vinegar chips were illegal, you would have found me in the basement of a ‘chip house’ with a Pringles pipe in my hand and chip crumbs frolicking in my beard. That may sound absurd, but I know other people can relate.
Look at the billions of dollars we spend on chips every year.
The near-perfect combination of crunchy and salty makes potato chips a hard snack to give up. I’ve heard patients say quitting cigarettes is easier than giving up potato chips. Despite these difficulties, I personally know cutting back on chips is an achievable goal.
How did I overcome my chip addiction?
A group akin to Alcoholics Anonymous called Confidential Chip Consumers didn’t exist. I was on my own. I thought looking up research studies on potato chips would be a good way to motivate me. A quick pubmed search helped me realize that my love affair with chips was about as fragile as the chips themselves. Here are some highlights on why potato chips are bad for you:
1. Walking 10,000 steps only burns an amount of calories equal to a couple of handfuls of potato chips.
Nowadays, everyone is fascinated with pedometers and tracking their steps. Achieving 10,000 steps every day has become a slogan for an active lifestyle. Anecdotally, 10,000 steps correlate to walking a distance of 5 miles, which burns 300-400 calories. I encourage people to get their steps in, but to also bear in mind how many calories they are eating. Regarding chips, the average 1 oz. bag of potato chips is just a handful. Each bag or handful contains about 150 calories. Realizing that I had to walk 10,000 steps just to burn off two handfuls of chips was sobering. It’s easier to avoid the extra calories altogether or at least eat fewer chips.
2. Routinely eating potato chips can lead to weight gain.
An extensive study published in the New England Journal of Medicine assessed the effects of lifestyle changes including physical activity, television watching, alcohol use, sleep duration, and diet on weight in 120,877 people over 20 years. The study analyzed impact of foods including fruits/vegetables, whole grains, refined grains, potatoes, potato chips, dairy products, sugar-sweetened beverages, sweets, processed/unprocessed meats, and fried foods on weight.
Of all of the foods and dietary factors studied, an increase in potato chip consumption was associated with the highest amount of weight gain (1).
3. Potato chips have increased amounts of acrylamide, a known carcinogen and neurotoxin.
When I started my search for health facts related to potato chips, the first article I found had the title below.
That title could stop traffic.
The authors questioned the safety of potato chips due to a chemical called acrylamide. What’s acrylamide? Acrylamide is a known mutagen, neurotoxin, and carcinogen.
It’s not quite the secret ooze that can turn turtles into ninjas, but it’s also not the type of stuff you want to eat in mass quantities. Many foods contain acrylamide, but it’s particularly high in potato chips due to the frying process. The acrylamide levels in chips were high enough to prompt the CDC (Center for Disease Control) to study how eating chips affects the acrylamide levels in our body (2).
Researchers found that eating 3 small bags or handfuls of chips every day for seven days increases acrylamide levels in our body by 46% (3). Another study demonstrated that the chip’s doneness level affects the acrylamide levels (4). These researchers revealed that dark brown chips had higher levels compared to golden/light brown chips. They also demonstrated that frying at a lower temperature with safflower oil generated the least amount of acrylamides. Their take home point was don’t eat that burnt, crispy-looking chip that infiltrates its way into every bag. Also, if you make your own chips, you may want to cook them with safflower oil and not burn them.
4. Potato chips may be addictive.
I know I made a joke about being a “chip addict,” but numerous studies show that tasty foods can activate the “reward systems” in our brains.
These “reward systems” are the reasons why the term “comfort food” exists. They are also the reason why drug addiction exists. German researchers questioned whether or not these reward systems can explain the science behind the phrase, “once you pop, you can’t stop.” In a landmark study, scientists gave mice an equal amount of calories of a standard chow and potato chips, then took brain MRIs and assessed for changes in behavior (5). The MRIs revealed that the chips strongly activated parts of the brain associated with reward, addiction, and food intake when compared to the standard chow. They also showed that parts of the brain dedicated to sleep were affected by chips. This effect on the brain correlated with sleep disturbances; the mice who ate the chips also slept less (this makes me think about why midnight snacks are not good). Although this study used mice as subjects, it raises some interesting questions about how chips affect our behavior as people.
5. Frequently eating chips may increase the risk of death.
Can potato chips affect my lifespan? That is the ultimate question.
While no study can provide a definitive answer, there was a recent study that associated frequent chip consumption with an increased risk of mortality. The study evaluated 4400 patients, ages 45-79, over 8 years. The study questioned whether potato consumption, fried and unfried, is associated with an increased risk mortality.
The investigators concluded that unfried potatoes did not have any significant impact on mortality. However, they demonstrated that eating fried potatoes 2-3 times and greater than 3 times per week were associated with an increased risk of mortality (6). I caution against over interpreting this study. The investigators also found that the people who ate the most chips also had an unhealthy diet overall. Like most medical studies, associations and causality are two different concepts.
What are reasonable chip alternatives?
I definitely recommend making your own chip substitutes instead buying pre-packaged items. You can make a chip out of almost any root/starchy vegetable. A couple of good options are:
- Baked sweet potato chips
- Carrot chips
- Jicama chips
- Parsnip chips
- Beet chips
If you are not trying to make your own chips, these are good options:
- Low sodium pickles if you like salt and vinegar chips
- Crunchy veggies (i.e. carrots, cucumbers, celery, snap peas)
- Popcorn (not microwave or movie popcorn)
What’s the bottom line on potato chips?
- Eating chips less than twice per week is probably safer than eating them more frequently.
- If frying chips, use safflower oil and don’t burn them.
- Try making chip substitutes.
- Baking potato chips is probably safer, but there’s still a lot of calories in baked chips. Acrylamides were also found in baked chips.
- If you are trying to lose weight, eating potato chips often may hinder you from reaching your goals.
- You may have to work out harder or walk more to burn off those extra calories if you are eating chips often.
- Chips may be addictive to some people.
- Overall, try to eat less potato chips (french fries too).
- Eat a healthy diet overall, especially if you are eating chips frequently.
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3. Vesper HW, Licea-Perez H, Meyers T, Ospina M, Myers GL. Pilot study on the
impact of potato chips consumption on biomarkers of acrylamide exposure. Adv Exp
Med Biol. 2005;561:89-96. PubMed PMID: 16438291.
4. Thürer A, Granvogl M. Generation of Desired Aroma-Active as Well as Undesired
Toxicologically Relevant Compounds during Deep-Frying of Potatoes with Different
Edible Vegetable Fats and Oils. J Agric Food Chem. 2016 Nov 30;64(47):9107-9115.
Epub 2016 Nov 16. PubMed PMID: 27806575.
5. Hoch, T., Kreitz, S., Gaffling, S., Pischetsrieder, M. & Hess, A. Manganese-enhanced magnetic resonance imaging for mapping of whole brain activity patterns associated with the intake of snack food in ad libitum fed rats. PLoS ONE. 8, e55354; 10.1371/journal.pone.0055354 (2013).
6. Veronese N, Stubbs B, Noale M, Solmi M, Vaona A, Demurtas J, Nicetto D,
Crepaldi G, Schofield P, Koyanagi A, Maggi S, Fontana L. Fried potato consumption
is associated with elevated mortality: an 8-y longitudinal cohort study. Am J
Clin Nutr. 2017 Jul;106(1):162-167.
I am a physician and trained chef. I specialize in gastroenterology and nutrition. Currently I work as the Associate Director of Adult Nutrition at the University of Chicago.