I always have a bag of potato chips. This may seem a bit out of character because overall, I try to be aware of how my food choices impact the world. As a lifelong foodie, I care about the reasons for, and consequences of, the way we eat. I've seen it all: from labor policies to international tariffs to environmental and social costs.

So I set out to practice what I preach and dig deeper into the life and times of the food that has gotten me through many lectures: potato chips.

When It All Started 

vegetable, pasture, potato, tuber, carbohydrate
Jocelyn Hsu

Potatoes are one of the world’s largest staple food crops. Originating in the Andes of Peru and Bolivia approximately 8,000 years ago, eventually travelled all over the world due to colonialism. Today, the world produces over 320 million tons of potatoes each year. People love to eat these starchy tubers in a variety of forms: baked, mashed, French fried, tater-tot-ted, and of course, as crispy and crunchy potato chips.

The Story Goes Like This

french fries, salt, potato, chips, sweet
Brandon Guild

Potato chips were invented in the 1850s by a biracial restaurant cook named George Crum—a fitting name for the mastermind behind a snack food. He was dealing with an difficult customer and quickly losing his cool (as anyone who's worked in customer service can relate). This customer kept criticizing the size of Crum’s French-fried potatoes. So, Crum cut the potato thinner and thinner to bother the customer and voila, he created the potato chip! (Unfortunately, the customer actually liked this new invention, so Crum’s plan did not work that well. Crum eventually set up a restaurant serving potato chips, so everyone was better off in the end).

Finally in the 1900s, potato chips took off as one of the world’s most popular snacks as food cultivation and production was industrialized. Today, the average American eats over 17 pounds of potato chips per year.

This beloved snack demands not only a look at its origins, but an inclusive view of how it plays a role in our lives and in the world.

What You Already Know

Unfortunately the salty taste—which makes chips taste so good—is indicative of a high sodium content that is linked to high blood pressure issues. But this food that we should eat in moderation was designed to be addictive. To capitalize on our biological attraction to savory flavors, food scientists have created a combination of salt and fat that make this treat hard to put down.

Costs to Communities

Potato chips are obviously not healthy, so why are they so much cheaper to buy? The low price and easy accessibility has a negative impact on the health of low-income communities. Our government subsidizes much of the production of the food industry, especially snack foods, making unhealthy snacks cheaper to buy. Meanwhile, fruits and veggies are not only more expensive but harder to find in low-income neighborhoods.

This results in a limited selection of healthy options, whose impact can be seen in the increased cost of health care for individuals and society as a whole. You vote with your dollar: your buying practices shape who has access to and can afford healthy foods.

candy, milk, dairy product
Carmen Tan

It Takes How Much Water?

When you are not producing your own food, it can be difficult to be aware of the environmental impact of each dish you consume. Eating a single bag of potato chips uses approximately 137 gallons of water, equivalent to the water used in a 50 minute shower.

The creation and transportation of each bag also produces 10.6 ounces of CO2e, greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming as much as carbon dioxide does. So consider skipping the long shower and the bag of potato chips to create a more sustainable world of food.

Alternative Snacks

Making your own is always a good idea to better regulate sodium and fat intake. I recommend baking thinly sliced potatoes with small amounts of salt and extra virgin olive oil at 350°F for 10-15 minutes. You won’t be contributing to as much landfill waste when you have no bag to throw out.

Worried about the cost? Two organic medium potatoes (about a pound) are only $1.21, a couple of cents more than a 99-cent bag of potato chips. If timing is an issue, bake a bunch on Sunday and bag them for snacking throughout the week. Or skip the potato together and opt for healthier and more filling fats like nuts. But make sure to look into what role nuts play in our food chain.

Things to Remember

Limiting consumption of potato chips is not enough. Learn more about the foods in your diet and how they impact your health, the environment, and human rights.

Take steps to be a more conscious consumer.

Want to Know More?

“How are potato chips made?" Check out this How It's Made  segment.

“Can you eat green potato chips?” Watch Arthur to find out.

“I love potato chips! Tell me more.” I would recommend you turn to the experts for that one and explore this book about potato chips.

And just because: fun facts about potatoes