What’s in a potato chip?

For the past several years, the kids and I have been engaged in an ongoing conversation about the food we eat and what goes into it. As I experiment with making more and more things from scratch that previously we would have purchased premade, we have started examining what, exactly, is in the foods we buy.

It may sound silly, since food is food, isn’t it? But the more we read labels, the more confused we’ve been getting.

When I make bread at home, I use 4 ingredients: water, yeast, salt, and flour. Sometimes, if I am feeling fancy about it, I’ll use several different types of flower and I’ll mix in things like sunflower seeds or oatmeal or honey or caraway seeds, but in essence there are but 4 ingredients, and they are all pronounceable. Storebought bread, with its perfectly evenly-sized loaves and its soft, mushy crusts and its ability to stay fresh on the counter for up to two weeks at a time has considerably more ingredients than homemade bread, and most of them are completely unpronounceable (which does lead to a certain amount of hilarity around the breakfast table as the kids try their best to read the label).

While I may not be able to pronounce the ingredients, at least I understand (more or less) what they are designed to do. They keep the bread humid, prevent it from molding, help it rise evenly, and keep it shelf stable so that it can survive days on a truck followed by days on a store shelf followed by up to 2 weeks on your kitchen counter.

The other day, we went for a walk to the corner store, where we loaded up on junk food just for the fun of it, then brought it home and started munching. Interestingly, the kids chose to read the labels first. K had chosen a package of Doritos, B a bag of salt and vinegar Lay’s, and I had chosen a bag of my favourite Miss Vickie’s old fashioned kettle chips.

I love Miss Vickie’s old fashioned kettle chips.

I was first introduced to Miss Vickie’s over 20 years ago, long before you could find her chips in the supermarkets. The museum I worked for was profiling Canadian women inventors in an exhibit titled Women of Invention, and she was one of the women who was profiled, along with the inventors of drip coffee, Scotchgard, the Balderdash board game, and more. The museum cafeteria, of course, started stocking Miss Vickie’s chips as a tie-in with the exhibit, and with the very first taste, I was hooked.

As I recall the story, at the time that she “invented” the chips, Vickie Kerr was concerned about all the additives and extras in the food she was feeding her kids. As a potato farmer, potatoes were plentiful at her house, and it wasn’t long before she was in the habit of making potato chips from scratch for her kids and their friends. Soon, the kids in the neighbourhood were begging for her chips and she would often send them home with a small paper bag full. Fast-forward a couple of years and she and her husband decided to feature their homemade potato chips at a potato festival. The chips were a hit, and within months they went into large-scale production of their product until eventually (well after the museum exhibit had run its course) they were bought out by Frito-Lay and took their product coast to coast.

You can imagine my amusement when my kids decided all of a sudden to become curious about what was in their chips. They struggled to read the labels, wondered loudly about what the heck those impossible-to-pronounce ingredients actually did, and then decided to tally up the total number of ingredients. If I remember correctly, the Doritos had 24 ingredients and the plain Lay’s had 22.

And then they read the Miss Vickie’s label: Potatoes, vegetable oil, and sea salt.

Three ingredients. Three pronounceable ingredients. Three ingredients we could find right now in our very own kitchen!

I’m sure you can guess what happened next:

We made potato chips.

They were delicious.



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