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Are New 'Healthier' Potato Chips Really Any Better For You?

Potato ChipsFrito-Lay, as part of a push to use natural ingredients in its chips, is adding beet juice, purple cabbage and carrots to the recipe. These natural vegetable dyes will replace ingredients such as FD&C Red 40.

By the end of the year, Frito-Lay intends to make half its snacks sold in the U.S. with only natural ingredients.

However, according to the Wall Street Journal:

"Making snacks with natural ingredients doesn't necessarily make them healthy, nutritionists and industry critics caution, even if they are potentially less bad. That includes potato chips."

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

By the end of 2011, about half of Pepsi's Frito-Lay brand snacks will be reformulated with all-natural ingredients. The company will be removing dietary atrocities like monosodium glutamate (MSG) and replacing with seasonings like molasses and paprika. Artificial colors like Red 40 will be replaced with beet juice, purple cabbage and carrots. Even ascorbic acid will be swapped out with rosemary.

Get Ready to See More "Natural" Snacks in the Potato Chip Aisle

On schedule to get a natural makeover are Lay's flavored potato chips, Tostitos tortilla chips, multigrain SunChips, Rold Gold pretzels and more, totaling more than 60 snacks in all.

The switch is part of PepsiCo's master plan to beef up their share of profits from the healthy foods category; the Wall Street Journal recently reported the company hopes to boost their nutrition business from $10 billion to $30 billion by 2020.

On one hand, the change is one more example of how consumer demand can change major corporations in a positive way. And the revamped chips may be less bad for you than the original formulations.

But before you add all-natural potato chips to your grocery list …  realize that choosing all-natural chips over regular chips is really only opting for the lesser of two evils, as there is simply no such thing as a "healthy" potato chip.

Even Natural Chips are a Health Disaster

Processed foods and snacks are rarely healthy, and potato chips are no exception.

When carbohydrate-rich foods like potatoes are cooked at high temperatures, as all potato chips are, acrylamide -- a tasteless, invisible chemical byproduct -- is formed.

Animal studies have shown that exposure to acrylamide increases the risk of several types of cancer, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer considers acrylamide a "probable human carcinogen." It has also been linked to nerve damage and other neurotoxic effects, including neurological problems in workers handling the substance.

While this chemical can be formed in many foods when they're heated to a temperature above 120 degrees Celsius (248 degrees Fahrenheit), French fries and potato chips are the biggest offenders.

A joint report by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations noted:

"The major contributing foods to total [acrylamide] exposure for most countries were potato chips (US=French fries) (16-30%), potato crisps (US=Chips) (6-46%), coffee (13-39%), pastry and sweet biscuits (US=Cookies) (10-20%) and bread and rolls/toasts (10-30%)."

In 2005, the state of California actually sued potato chip makers for failing to warn California consumers about the health risks of acrylamide. A settlement was reached in 2008 when Frito-Lay and several other potato chip makers agreed to reduce the acrylamide levels in their chips to 275 parts per billion (ppb) in three years, which is low enough to avoid needing a cancer warning label.

It is unclear how Frito-Lay expected to maintain constant levels of acrylamide, as WHO and FAO report that the levels of the chemical can be influenced by a number of conditions during processing, leading to widely fluctuating levels even between batches of the same brand:

"Acrylamide may be formed when dietary items, typically plant commodities high in carbohydrates and low in protein, are subjected to high temperatures during cooking or other thermal processing.

Since formation is dependent on the exact conditions of time and temperature used to cook or heat-process a food, there can be large variations between brands of the same product and between batches of the same brand."

Further, it's now being reported that irradiation may be used to reduce acrylamide formation in potato chips -- a process that is fraught with its own set of risks.

Baked Chips May Contain Even MORE Acrylamide

If you're thinking you can avoid the health risks of potato chips by choosing baked varieties, think again. Acrylamide is formed not only when foods are fried or broiled, but also when they are baked. And according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) data on acrylamide levels in foods, baked chips may contain MORE THAN THREE TIMES the level of acrylamide as regular chips!

You can see the data for yourself here -- while acrylamide levels for Lay's Classic Potato Chips varied from 249 to 549 ppb, depending on the date and batch tested, Baked! Lay's Potato Chips tested out at 1,096!

Interestingly, the same trend held true for other foods, too, which suggests that baking processed potatoes at high temperature may be one of the worst ways to cook them. For instance, Ore Ida Golden Fries contained 107 ppb of acrylamide in the regular fried version and 1,098 when baked.

So remember, ALL potato chips contain acrylamide, regardless of whether they are natural or not, baked or fried. Likewise, they will ALL also influence your insulin levels in a very negative way.

Another Reason to Avoid "Natural" Potato Chips

In 2009, Frito-Lay launched an advertising campaign highlighting the fact that real potatoes are used to make its potato chips (apparently many Americans didn't believe it). This was meant to be a good thing, but remember that potatoes are a perfect example of the type of carbohydrate you want to reduce in your diet.

When you eat more carbohydrates than can be used by your body, the excess carbohydrate energy is converted to fat by your liver. This process occurs to help your body maintain blood sugar control in the short-term, however it will likely increase triglyceride concentrations, which will increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.

Also, insulin, stimulated by an overabundant consumption of grains, starches and sweets, is the cause of many problems.

It's responsible for many bulging stomachs and fat rolls in thighs and chins, and even worse, high insulin levels suppress two other important hormones -- glucagons and growth hormones -- that are responsible for burning fat and sugar and promoting muscle development, respectively.

So insulin from excess carbohydrates promotes fat, and then wards off your body's ability to lose that fat. Excess weight and obesity not only lead to heart disease but also a wide variety of other diseases. High insulin levels are also one of the primary accelerants of the aging process and a major contributor to chronic disease.

So Can You Trust "All-Natural" Food Labels?

Not if you value your health.

The natural food label on a processed food (like potato chips) has no standard definition and really no meaning at all. The term is only regulated on meat and poultry, for which an item labeled natural may not contain any artificial flavors, colors or chemical preservatives. But in the processed food arena, a "natural" product can be virtually anything -- genetically modified, full of pesticides, made with corn syrup, additives, preservatives and artificial ingredients.

So don't fall for Frito-Lay's revamped image as a health-food brand. If it looks like a potato chip and smells like a potato chip, it's a potato chip -- with all of its pitfalls to your good health -- regardless of whether the label now calls it "natural."

If you want to enjoy potatoes without the side effects linked to it, you may be better off making homemade potato dishes, such as a baked potato. To learn how, read this article entitled "How to Bake Potatoes."

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