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Are Low-Calorie Tortilla Chips Bullshit?

All their healthy bluster makes them seem better. But are they really that much of an improvement over regular tortilla chips?

You’re planning to sit down to watch the Detroit Lions lose to the Green Bay Packers for the umpteenth time, but beforehand, you stop at your local Meijer and stock up on your favorite tortilla chips. Just as you have a party-sized bag of your favorite chip nestled comfortably in your hands — which are clammy with nervousness over the Lions’ inevitable embarrassment (can you tell where I’m from?) — you spot a healthier version of the same chip. It’s low-fat, and has 10 fewer calories per serving.

“Awesome!” you think to yourself, with misplaced enthusiasm and pride. “Eating this will totally make up for the fact that I’m missing my workout to watch the Lions get creamed! In fact, making this healthy decision is probably better for me than working out in the grand scheme of things, because I’m eating less fat!”

Let’s briefly address the common misconception that eating fat leads to weight gain. In 1979, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs recommended eating less fat, for some reason, alongside eating less sugar as a way to reduce the likelihood of obesity. This all comes from a gross misunderstanding caused by equating all of the shorthand forms of “fat” with one another. Such misapprehension involves the belief that the dietary fat from an olive or an avocado enters your stomach, gets processed by your digestive system and then casually drifts over to your love handles where it’s redeposited as adipose tissue. In other words, dietary fat automatically becomes body fat.

I can see where this falsehood might sound attractive, so I’m gonna point to an obvious absurdity. You’re eating some hickory smoked beef jerky, and the lean beef hits your stomach. Does the beef automatically wend its way through your body to become muscle mass? While we’re at it, do beans work their way over to your back and sprout a magic beanstalk?

No, they don’t, and this is your cue to stop taking the components of your food quite so literally. That’s not to say that the macronutrients and micronutrients within that food don’t behave differently or influence your body in different ways. The carbs you devoured in your broccoli most assuredly behave differently than the carbs from the funfetti icing you licked off of your mom’s anniversary cupcakes. 

But we’re not here to deliberate over the differences between a calorie of Johnnie Walker Green Label and a calorie of Pepsi Blue (although we’ll probably tackle that at another time). This is about the difference between regular and diet — or healthy and unhealthy — tortilla chips, if such distinctions truly exist.

To start, allow me to compare a bag of original Tostitos tortilla chips with three of its ostensibly healthier first cousins — the Baked Scoops, Blue Corn Organic and Lightly Salted editions. The original Tostitos weigh in at 140 calories per 28-gram serving (they seriously couldn’t have just rounded up to one ounce?) with 63 of the calories coming from fat. Remember, we’re going to effectively disregard the calories from fat, as it’s really just a measure of caloric density of some of the grams of the chip, and not an indication of how quickly a subsection of that chip’s components are converted into adipose tissue on your body.

With this in mind, let’s move over to the bag of Baked Scoops. Each serving delivers 120 calories per serving, and 25 calories from fat. One serving of the Blue Corn Organic bounces us right back to 140 calories and 54 calories from fat, and the Lightly Salted edition keeps us there, with both total calories and calories from fat maintained at the exact same levels as the original Tostitos.

So what does this mean to you? 

Well, for all of their healthy bluster, the purportedly healthier variations of Tostitos all fail to deliver any tangible difference to your diet — at least not where it matters most. Sure, the Lightly Salted edition might lessen sodium-induced bloat, but that’s just temporary water weight

And when it comes to the Baked Scoops, who are we kidding? You’re going to shred through that bag in three days, tops. By the time you’ve dispensed with a bag of the baked tortilla chips, you will have consumed in the realm of 140 fewer calories, while ingesting at least 720 calories, give or take 120 calories depending on how many total servings the package contains. 

All of which is to say, I don’t want you to feel silly for choosing low-calorie tortilla chips, but I do want you to be reasonable about believing you could extract a healthy, non-fattening product out of a snack food that isn’t particularly healthy to begin with, nor was it ever intended to be. That bag of chips you eat out of boredom while the Lions are struggling on offense — or out of stress when they’re caving in on defense — is going to deliver a heaping helping of complex carbohydrates to your daily food intake no matter how you divide them up.