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Healthy foods: Chips without guilt

By Sarah Moran

July 12, 2009


Chips are a summertime staple, accompanying sandwiches in picnic baskets and getting devoured at barbecues. But does indulging in these crispy, salty snacks derail all healthy eating goals? Or can a chip actually be healthy (without tasting like cardboard)?

It depends, said Sharon Lehrman, a registered dietitian with a private practice in St. Louis Park. Savvy consumers can find chips that actually have some nutritional benefit -- if they know what to look for.

Lehrman's favorite is Trader Joe's Soy and Flaxseed Tortilla Chips. Healthier than most, they're a hit at every party, she said. The chips have 130 calories per ounce compared with the usual 150 calories. They have 4 grams of fiber to the average 2 grams and 6 grams of protein instead of the typical 2 grams. With only 50 milligrams of sodium, they have significantly less salt than the usual 150 to 280 milligrams.

The main problem with chips is simply how much people eat, Lehrman said. Anyone who's ended up greasy elbowed after fishing for crumbs knows what she's talking about. "A lot of people are habituated to eating right out of the bag," she said. Read the label, though, and you'll find that an average serving is 10 to 15 chips.

Perhaps part of the reason people eat so many chips -- and are continually getting fatter -- is because what they're eating isn't satisfying, suggested Lynne Rossetto Kasper, host of "The Splendid Table," public radio's food show from American Public Media. "I'd rather have a little of the real thing that's very, very good than a lot of the fake, phony, low-fat, low-this, low-that, which never gives you satisfaction," she said.

Baked chips, she said, don't usually cut it. "The healthiest in my mind is from an organic, very prime ingredient -- whether it's a vegetable, potato, cassava, yucca, whatever -- [that's fried] in a really high-quality oil without trans fats," she said.

"You take a delicious food, a potato, and then you fry it and you've got a combination that's just irresistible," she said. "There's that texture, that crisp crunch, and the flavor of the potato with the beautiful counterbalance of salt. What's not to love?"

Chips are what most people expect when they order a sandwich, said Danny Schwartzman, owner of Common Roots Cafe in Minneapolis. Every week Common Roots gets a delivery of tortilla chips from family-owned and -operated Whole Grain Milling, located in Welcome, Minn., about 100 miles from the restaurant. Schwartzman likes the chips because they're local, taste great and come from a producer that grows the corn, mills the grain and delivers direct. But there are also health benefits.

"When we looked at the chips on the market, we felt we could make one with our corn that was more nutritious," said Whole Grain Milling farmer and owner Doug Hilgendorf. The yellow tortilla chips are made with high-lysine corn, which has a more complete protein than most corn. And the corn isn't genetically modified, like most.

Choose whole veggies

So how do corn chips stack up against potato chips or even veggie chips? Generally, corn is king, Lehrman said. That's because they're usually made from whole corn, a whole grain, and are higher in fiber. Many potato chips are made from potato starch with barely any fiber, and they're nothing close to a whole potato. A whole potato sliced and baked with skin on could compete better against corn, and a whole sweet potato chip baked with skin on would be even better yet.

"Calorie wise, [a white potato and a sweet potato] are about the same, but from a nutrition standpoint, sweet potatoes are a powerhouse," Lehrman said.

As for veggie chips, it's buyer beware. Again, if it's made from whole veggies, like whole beets and whole sweet potatoes that are sliced and baked, it'd be a healthy, nutritious snack. But that's an unlikely find. The "veggies" in most veggie chips are just powders or extracts. For example, a package of World Gourmet Garden Veggie Straws touts that its chips are made with real potatoes, tomatoes and spinach. But they're actually made with potato flour (the same starch-laden ingredient used in instant mashed potato mix), tomato puree and spinach powder.

The other big problem with chips is the sodium content. The World Gourmet Garden Veggie Straws boast being "lightly salted," but they have a whopping 290 milligrams of sodium per ounce. The second leading cause of preventable death is high blood pressure, and among dietary factors, too much salt was the biggest contributor to high blood pressure. Look for chips with less than 140 to 180 milligrams per ounce, Lehrman said.

Also, don't think that eating baked chips gives you permission to eat all you want. They usually have less fat, but sometimes that causes people to go overboard and accumulate more calories quickly. With baked or fried, read the ingredients, Lehrman said. Look for at least 2 grams of fiber, at least 2 grams of protein, less than 140 to 180 milligrams of sodium and ingredients like "whole corn" or "whole potatoes." Take out one serving, and put the bag back in the pantry.

Finally, remember that eating chips plain means you're filling up with carbohydrates. Add healthy fats and protein for a more complete snack that's better for you. Homemade guacamole and hummus are easy, healthy dips. Fresh salsa (be careful with canned, which is often high in sodium) also has many nutritional benefits.

So there actually are some reasonably healthy chips that are somewhat nutritious, Lehrman said. With those chips, eating a serving is nothing to feel guilty about. But, she added, don't expect that "chips are really making a big, positive contribution to your diet."

Sarah Moran is a Minneapolis freelance health writer.

© 2009 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.

Copyright Sharon Lehrman, All Rights Reserved.
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