Potato Chips: a Mild Drug?
DISCLAIMER: If you are British, the ‘chips’ I will be referring to are crisps and not the French fries!
I am sure we have all been guilty of finishing one whole packet of chips by ourselves when intuitively we know that they are high in calories and overeating is bad for our body. There are even people who ‘cannot live’ without eating this snack, to the extent that there are individuals who have been eating it every day for the last 20 years or that they need to buy about 100 bags a week to keep them satisfied. (Please watch the YouTube videos for more information [here and here])
Potato chips have a ‘power’ to drive people into craving them constantly and needing to have them nearby. Potato chips and other hyperpalatable foods are now being referred to as a ‘mild drug’, as they can be as addictive as tobacco or alcohol. How exactly does this toxic and addictive ‘power' control our body? What are the mechanisms behind it?
Just how calorie dense are potato chips?
Although the number of calories highly depends on the flavour and brand, on average, a packet of Lays (original) in Thailand weighs about 75g, which is 402 calories. This amount equates to eating half a stick of butter. If you eat 2 packets every day along with your regular daily meals, you can gain up to 3kg of weight in a month.
Why is it impossible to only eat one potato chip?
This is because potato chips have many addictive ingredients such as fats, oils and sugars. They are essential ingredients to human life and when we consume them the brain responds with a sudden urge, feeling of pleasure and a need for more, even if we are not hungry. This is triggered by what is called “bliss point”. It refers to the ‘irresistible ratio of sugar, salt and fat’, the point where the saltiness, sweetness and richness is “just right”.
In fact, many food manufacturers spend countless amounts of money to find this bliss point because our bodies have evolved to prefer foods with these tastes that stimulate the brain with a “reward” in the form of endorphins and dopamine (the happy hormone). Our bodies then remember this sensation, making us vulnerable to doing it (eating) again. Overtime, as our bodies become used to the sensation, we begin to eat more in order to get the same level of dopamine rush.
The same can be said about the salt content and the use of flavour additives called ‘monosodium L-glutamate" also known as MSG, a flavor enhancer. It is added for its “umami” quality. Umami, a Japanese word, is considered to be a fifth flavor category that is essentially savory but does not correspond to the sweet, salty, sour or bitter categories of tastes. MSG is so ubiquitous in our food chain that it would be very difficult to go MSG-free.
MSG has many effects on our body. For example, it lowers a protein called adiponectin that helps regulate blood sugar levels and energy expenditure by nearly 60%.This decrease can cause high blood sugar levels and a decrease in metabolism that can trigger weight gain.
All these addictive ingredients manipulate our brain and body into thinking we need more and making leptin unrecognizable to the brain. Leptin is a chemical messenger released by fat cells and is transported to the brain as a signal to stop eating. However, consumption of these addictive ingredients inhibits the receptors in the brain to receive this "stop eating" signal, despite the massive increase in production by fat cells. As a result, this leads to an increased appetite, making it hard to be satisfied by eating one chip.
Another reason for the ‘addiction' is linked to the sound it makes. One study has found that the sound potato chips make have a significant influence on our addictive indulgence of this snack. They discovered that the inevitable crunch produced is an important factor of a food's desirability. The louder the crunch, the more it is perceived as crispier and fresher, therefore, more desirable and appetizing.
"Chips are made from potatoes, potatoes are vegetables which can only mean they're healthy... right? "
Potatoes have an amino acid called aspartic acid, and when this is cooked at a high temperature above 100°C, it turns into an organic compound called acrylamide.
Shockingly, acrylamide is used and found in industrial chemicals such as adhesives, dyes, paints and even plastic. It has been warned that it may harm health as it damages genes in the human body. Acrylamide has been found in many different foods, but potato chips are by far the most common.
Unfortunately, the process of washing, blanching and frying leads to the loss of the original beneficial nutrients.
Therefore, even if this snack originates from potatoes, nutritionally, it has very little to no benefits for our body.
Even after reading this article, I am sure that you will continue to eat potato chips, and I cannot blame you. It will take a lot will power and strong intentions to quit. However, there are certain changes you can implement to reduce the risks of this mild drug. As an alternative, baked potato chips or tortilla chips tend to be lower in calories and fat (but they can still contain high levels of sodium) or when eating a packet perhaps share it with a group of people instead of carrying the guilt all by yourself!
Written by Momiji Uji
Grad 20 Student at Bangkok Patana School
 Savcheniuk, OA., et.al. (2014) The efficacy of probiotics for monosodium glutamate-induced obesity: dietology concerns and opportunities for prevention. EPMA J. 2014 Jan 13;5(1):2.