Life has pretty much always been a slog, even before The Pandemic. But when the coronavirus, as a mere fledgling, started hopping from person to person, prompting our government to respond abominably and uncovering problem after problem, our existence plunged ever deeper into a previously unseen, increasingly disturbing circle of fiery hell. And while we have virtually no control over our fate, besides staying put and wearing masks, we can control how we cope — and in times like these, that may mean ravaging through basins of greasy junk food.
Stranded in a dark tunnel with no end in sight, a skimpy bag of chips shines especially bright, providing a momentary respite from the endless stream of depressing news.
Nevertheless, much like how we should renounce our haphazard urges — e.g., our eagerness to embrace friends and family — to even have a fighting chance against this deadly pandemic, we must also mind our affection for deep-fried potatoes if we hope to maintain our health and sanity all the while. See, the big problem with chips is that they tend to be fatty, salty and highly caloric, while providing virtually zero actual nutrition.
Suggesting we forego chips altogether would be preposterous, though. Unhealthy as they may be, we need our crunchy potato wedges now more than ever. Instead, I departed on a quest to find the healthiest (well, least unhealthy) brand of chips — a pouch of deep-fried potatoes that delivers emotional relief without doing too much physical damage in the process. Helping me navigate these salty waters was Cate Shanahan, biochemist, past director of the L.A. Lakers PRO Nutrition program and author of Deep Nutrition and The Fatburn Fix.
Now, welcome our challengers, the chips, in their most basic forms, that will be competing against one another for a badge of relative healthiness:
We can eliminate the least healthy options straightaway. As Shanahan explains, Doritos, Cheetos, Funyuns, SunChips and Pringles “have added flavoring agents, like MSG and artificial flavors. That means they don’t depend on the natural flavor of corn to come through, and they can use and reuse the vegetable oil for longer. (I’m not sure if they do, but they could.) So aside from avoiding the MSG, maltodextrin and unnatural flavoring agents, you may get a small dose of the toxic breakdown products of vegetable oil,” which can increase your chances of developing cancer. (Quick aside: SunChips, how dare you dupe me with your health-inspired marketing.)
The remaining chips — Fritos, Lay’s, Ruffles, Miss Vickie’s and Tostitos — all have the same main ingredients: Potatoes (or corn), vegetable oil and salt. And while the nutritional labels are quite similar, Shanahan says, “It was almost a tie between Fritos and Tostitos due to the simple list of just three ingredients: Corn, (crappy) oil and salt. But since the Tostitos have less oil per serving — and the oil is toxic — they’re the clear winner.” If you dip them into some nutritious salsa or guacamole, even better.
Reused or otherwise, Shanahan has told me before that vegetable oils are certainly worth limiting, since too much can result in fatty liver disease, insulin resistance and migraines. Vegetable oils, especially those used in processed foods, are also generally large sources of unhealthy fats that can contribute to you developing heart disease and suffering a stroke. “If you start looking at the ingredients in snack foods and junk foods, you’ll find that vegetable oils, like corn, soy and canola oil, are the defining features of junk food,” Shanahan explains. “In fact, if you take away the vegetable oil from Fritos and Tostitos, you have a shorter ingredients list and healthier products than Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, which are perceived as wholesome.”
Well, Tostitos, I know this may be asking a lot, but I sure hope you can help me — no, us — through all of this. We really do need you now more than ever, as a comfort, a bag to cry into and a reminder that, through thick and thin, even the smallest of treats make a difference.