Potato chips are serious business, with a greasy global market worth in excess of $31 billion. The massive revenues accrued by potato chips are supported by the prevailing position of potato chips as the preferred snack of many developed countries, with nations like the U.S., France and the U.K. all maintaining populations where at least 84 percent of the populace reportedly enjoys potato chips.
With potato chips enjoying that level of dominance in the snack-food industry, it’s no wonder that Slim Jim opened its most iconic and memorable beef jerky commercials with wrestling stars Randy Savage and Bam Bam Bigelow firing unambiguous salvos at the potato chip industry.
But whenever such a salty, greasy food item is so widely consumed, the potential exists for a health crisis to materialize in its crispy, crumby wake. In fact, the very same simplicity of a potato chip’s composition, which eases its creation and mass distribution potential, also contributes to its inherent unhealthiness.
“A potato chip can be sliced from a whole potato, or it can be more processed and broken down like some different types of potato chips that are pressed together into more of a potato-like mash,” explains Teresa Strzemienski, a Duke University Hospital dietitian who has spent years working with a diverse range of patients who have been stricken with many forms of nutritional deficiencies. “Sometimes they’re baked, which can decrease the amount of fat that gets absorbed into that potato, but it’s traditionally a deep-fried slice of potato, seasoned in salt and sometimes other seasonings.”
Potato chips are well-known for their potential to be a high-calorie snack that’s absent of any redeeming micronutrient content, which is partially owed to the process by which they’re birthed. However, Strzemienski is quick to identify this as an inevitable consideration in the creation of most food items.
“When you apply heat of any sort to a food, in some respect you’re degrading the nutrient content,” she tells me. “The best way to get the full source of nutrients is to eat things raw, but no one really wants to eat a raw potato. So to some degree you’re taking away some of the nutrients.”
While the heat-derived decline of a potato’s nutrients may sound unattractive, Strzemienski identifies legitimate situations in which eating a potato of reduced micronutrient value could actually be to your advantage. “It can be very helpful depending on some of the disease states you may have,” she says. “For instance, potatoes are very high in potassium. If you were to soak a potato in water overnight, some of that potassium is going to leach out of that potato and into the water, and that’s going to make a lower potassium potato. If someone is having kidney trouble, that might be one way for them to enjoy a potato while monitoring their potassium levels to make sure they don’t get too high.”
However, we’re not really talking about regular potatoes; we’re talking about the deep-fried, super-salty variety. So, all that aside, could eating a potato chip ever be considered a fundamentally advisable decision?
“Am I going to advise someone to eat a potato chip? No,” Strzemienski answers. “If someone tells me it’s a part of their diet they want to incorporate, we can find a way to allow that to happen on an infrequent basis. I come from a long line of potato-chip lovers — three generations when you include my dad, myself and my daughter — so it’s something that we all incorporate into our diets, but there are other concessions we make in our diets to allow for a higher-salt or a higher-fat food item.”
Along those lines, she adds, “I would say not to eat a high-fat, high-salt food item every day. I’d say you could maybe do it once a week. That’s because potato chips are usually high in trans fats or hydrogenated fats. This means long-term, repeated consumption of chips could lead to strain on your heart or elevated blood pressure. If someone already has elevated blood pressure or any sort of cardiac condition, these aren’t the sorts of foods that you want to introduce into your diet either.”
You know what that means? Randy Savage was right all along.