Daily Footprint, #22 – Potato Chips

It’s good to get back to the Daily Footprint, charting the impact of our epic voyage through a typical day. You’ve just had a stressful meeting at work with lots of Important People (even Mr. McDougall senior showed up!) and you really feel the need for some comfort food. You know you shouldn’t (especially since you had two peanut butter cups earlier) but you really want some potato chips. So, let’s take a look at the impact of potato chips (a.k.a. crisps) and related snacks.

Potato chips – origin story

Apparently, potato chips are 200 years old this year! That’s if you count from a recipe in the English cookbook called The Cook’s Oracle, published in 1817. Another story places the origin in Saratoga Springs, NY, where super-thin chips were born out of chef George Crum’s frustration with a customer who kept sending his French fries back for being too chunky. Chef Crum thought, “I’ll show him!” and fried some thin slices of potato that the customer wouldn’t be able to pick up on his fork. The customer loved them and he and George ended up eloping together (…yeah, I made that last part up). It’s all moot anyway, because apparently the real inventor in that restaurant was Crum’s sister!

Social & environmental impact of chips

Here are a few factors to consider when choosing between brands. I’ve written reviews of most of the brands mentioned (follow the links to read them).

Sustainability of potatoes

In general, potatoes are a sustainable crop with a high yield and relatively small footprint. The FAO published a guide to sustainability in potato farming and highlighted a few issues such as soil health, water use, and genetic diversity. The need for genetic diversity applies to most crops – relying too much on one variety increases the risk of a single pathogen causing devastation (as was the case during the Irish potato famine). Jackson’s Honest (4/5 Green Stars), a newer brand in the US, supports smaller, sustainable farmers and also uses heirloom potato varieties.

Various Chips - Green Stars Rating
Various chips, rated for social and environmental impact.

Alternatives to potato

There are several other sustainable chip options besides potatoes. Terra (4/5 Green Stars) make sweet potato chips and also a tropical mix that includes plantain, coconut and taro. Forager (4/5 green stars) uses veggie pulp left over from juicing to make their chips, addressing a food waste issue. Ocean’s Halo (5/5 green stars) made seaweed chips and packaged them in compostable bags but sadly they stopped selling  them – more on this in Part 2, next week. I’m a big believer in seaweed for fixing some of our global problems; here’s a detail from my review of Ocean’s Halo:

Seaweed does not compete for land space and there’s no need for fresh water, fertilizer, or pesticides. Researchers in the Netherlands have calculated that it would only take 1% of the ocean (an area equivalent to Washington State) to grow enough seaweed to supply enough protein for the entire human population. Also, seaweed can help reverse the acidification of the oceans that has taken place since the industrial revolution.

Cooking oil

Sunflower: If you’re in the US, I’d recommend looking out for chips cooked in organic oil since the neonics (still banned in Europe for now) applied widely to conventional sunflower crops are not helping bees. Kettle Brand organic chips (5/5 Green Stars) are a good option. What a company does with its used cooking oil is also important. Here’s an excerpt from a Kettle Chips review:

I’m giving Kettle Foods 5/5 green stars for social and environmental impact. They use 100% green energy (either on-site solar and wind or through credits); convert all of their waste oil to biodiesel; had the first LEED gold certified manufacturing plant in the U.S.; and support various efforts from wetland conservation to hunger relief.

Coconut: Jackson’s Honest (4/5 Green Stars) use organic coconut oil for their chips –  even imported coconut oil has a lower footprint than most corn or soy oils.

Palm: In general I avoid it. I make one exception here. Luke’s Organic (4/5 green stars) use a blend of sunflower, safflower and palm oil for their chips. I wrote to them to ask about their palm oil and this is their response:

We source palm fruit oil only from small, organic family farms in Ecuador. It is certified Organic, Non-GMO and Fair Trade. Our supplier works with farmers directly to ensure that no deforestation or habitat destruction results from the growing or harvesting process. The region in Ecuador where our Organic Red Palm Oil is grown has numerous small family farms, averaging 10 hectares (about 25 acres), interspersed throughout the regional forests. These subsistence farms were planted many years ago and are now being worked by second and third generation farming families.

Sweet Potato Chips
Battle of the sweet potatoes

Community involvement / charitable donations

To take one example, Late July (4/5 Green Stars) donates 10% of profits to charitable causes (including the Jane Goodall Institute and the Whole Planet Foundation).

Brand ownership

It’s also good to look into brand ownership. The brand Food Should Taste Good (2/5 green stars) is owned by General Mills, one of the least sustainable of the “Big 10” food conglomerates: check out their rating on Oxfam’s Behind the Brand scorecard.

Similarly, for Barbara’s (2/5 green stars for their cheese puffs) – take a look at the About page of their website and you’ll see nostalgic photos of Barbara, who opened a natural bakery in the Bay Area in 1971. In fact, Barbara’s was sold to Weetabix, who in turn has been owned by Chinese state-owned company Bright Food until last month when they were bought by Post Holdings, Inc. The use of a nostalgic image like Barbara is a familiar tactic (like Hershey, discussed in an earlier post) that’s best ignored when evaluating a brand.

Doritos, Walkers, and many other popular brands are owned by Frito-Lay, a subsidiary of PepsiCo. I haven’t done a full review of PepsiCo yet but based on its track record on palm oil purchasing I’m not rushing out to support them. These Frito-Lay brands also receive low scores in the UK’s Ethical Consumer magazine and Australia’s Shop Ethical guide.

Luke's Organic Cheddar Clouds, rated 4/5 green stars, and Barbara's Cheese Puffs, rated 2/5 green stars
Cheese Puff stand-off

As usual, this is running a bit long so I’m going to wait until next week to look at the one issue that casts a shadow over that bag of potato chips that you crave – packaging

PS: All reviews above are just my opinion. Please feel free to share your opinion, and if you write a review you can enter the recurring Green Stars Review competition!

6 thoughts on “Daily Footprint, #22 – Potato Chips

  1. Very good detail as always. It’s interesting to read the responses of producers (and good that you get in touch with them to see how they react).

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