Bowl Games: The Inside Scoop to Taste-Testing the Best Chips

They’re spread out before you, ready for the gridiron crunch. Seasoned. Fresh. Old-timers, in contention with brash upstarts — but you’re not supposed to know which one is which, in these try-outs. Some look tough, but they can crumble under pressure. Others are tougher than they look, but is that what you really want in the clinch? Because when you’re getting ready for the Super Bowl, your chips have got to have the guts, grind, and gusto to last four quarters.

OK, so I’ve pretty much exhausted all my pigskin metaphors. Suffice it to say that I had to come up with a strong line-up of chips — potato and other — fit for a Super Bowl gathering. That meant bringing together taste buds trained in the best playoff stadiums in the U.S. of A. for a blind taste-testing.

[ Related: Dig into these guacamole myths ]

Why take chips so seriously? This American addiction is in fact yet another beneficiary of tough times: According to Larry Finkel of Packaged Facts, more Americans have turned to the chip. We eat out less, eat on-the-go more, and forgo meals for snacks — and potato chips gained nearly $150 million in 2010 sales, the biggest gainer among all munchies. Frito-Lay’s the big leader, thanks mainly to its Lay’s and Ruffles brands.

Tortilla and tostada chips come in second, although their flavor lost some favor in 2010.

All chips were conducted one tasting, but we’ve separated the potatoes from the corn into two separate rankings. The scoop inside the Chip-off:

The tasters: first and second strings
I drafted a team of hard-hitters: the sports video producers of Yahoo! Studios, who bring you fine works such as Fantasy Football Live and NFL This Week. No question, Ricky, Victor, Joel, Frank, Brian, and Howard have a sterling reputation and discriminating palates, but when they fizzled out, the cubicle benchwarmers were ready to come in. More on that later.

The contenders: chips ahoy
Three locations shopped: Costco (for sheer quantity), Cost Plus (for offbeat flavors), and Grocery Outlet (because I was there). There are seemingly endless variations, but I limited the purchase to 10 random brands (actually 11 bags, explained below). Chips were dumped into individual black plastic bowls, tagged as Bag One, Bag Two, etc., on the comment sheet, and then rated between 1 (mind-blowing) and 5 (meh).

The potato chip list, in random order:

Kettle Brand 40% Reduced Fat Potato Chips, Salt & Fresh Ground PepperNotable: a “Tear Here” bonus. I can break through bricks, but tearing open some of these bags can be a bugger.

All Natural Pop Chips Parmesan Garlic Potato Notable: Extra credit for the seemingly impermeable bag, which felt like it would guard against light smooshing.

Ruffles OriginalNotable: Its distinctive ridges made it hard to disguise, but would that work against the chip?

Hawaiian Original Kettle Style Potato Chips Original Crispy & CrunchNotable: Apparently Hawaiians prefer to call their big bags for party-size rather than family-size, the norm for all the others. Then again, everyone’s family in Hawaii. Ohana!

Calbee Snack Salad Snapea Crisps BakedNotable: Okay, okay, it’s a vegetable, not a tuber. Gotta sneak ’em in somehow. Larry Finkel of Packaged Facts points out that “better-for-you” snacks are in high demand… but maybe not with this crowd.

The tortilla list, also random order:

Doritos Nacho CheeseNotable: A classic, this tortilla chip projected the most neon colors of the lot.

Tostitos Scoops! Stone-Ground White CornNotable: One of two purchased for scoopability considerations.)

Food Should Taste Good All Natural Chips Cheddar Tortilla Chips (it’s a cracker too!) made with cheddar cheese, quinoa, flax, sunflower, sesame seeds, soy, and brown rice. Notable: Yes, all that and more is imprinted on the front of the bag. Another Cost Plus purchase, 2 for $5. Who can resist a sale? The contents of both bags were emptied into separate giant coffee filters, then placed into a single black bowl)

Food Should Taste Good All Natural Chips Olive Tortilla Chips (it’s a cracker too!) made with black, green and Kalamata olives, garlic, sea salt. Notable: See above.

Xochitl Totopos de Maiz Mexican-styleNotable: The Cost Plus purchase came with a helpful pronunciation guide: “so cheel.” The bag’s one of the few outright recyclable ones (not all chip bags are, although programs like TerraCycle can upcycle your bags.)

Fritos Scoops! Corn ChipsNotable: Another classic chosen for its scoopability.

The judging: dainty duchesses vs. caged quarterbacks

Tasters had to consider crunch, flavor, and scoopability. And yes, there was guacamole (Wholly Guacamole) and salsa at the ready.

The sports producers — six males — came to the Green Room after lunch. Faced with huge bowls of chips, did the boys chow down? Heck no. Turns out the boys are following “New Year’s resolutions,” which apparently is the manly code word for diet. They ate just one or two chips from each bowl, like dainty duchesses at tea time. But they did take the test seriously, eating the chips contemplatively, sipping hot green tea or drinking water in between to cleanse their palates, and dutifully noting their impressions.

[ Related: Cutting calories from your Super Bowl menu ]

The remaining chips were then hoisted up four flights to the Yahoo! editorial team, where the women (Amber, Maria, Krysta, Trystan) converged like caged quarterbacks. So how did the chips stand up to grazers and gluttons?

The standouts:

First, I ‘d like to say everyone’s a winner. It’s true: When it comes to chips, tastes can be widely divergent. After the scores were averaged (my apologies to the Yahoo! economist Ph.D. who advised using the median — the scores varied too widely), these stood out in the gridiron grind:

Taste leader: Kettle Brand 40% Reduced Fat Potato Chips, Salt & Fresh Ground Pepper. The scores were all in the 1-3 range. Comments: “Strong vinegar flavor,” “bold, pepper flavor – good crunch.” The lowest score was a 3, “too much black pepper, leaves sour aftertaste.”

Most controversial: Doritos Nacho Cheese, with reactions ranging from “standard no excitement” (Amber) to “the Ferrari of chips” (Frank). The messy experience was a plus for Howard: “leave red powder on fingers to suck on later.” One note: Maria pointed out that despite the “no trans fats” claim, Doritos’ ingredients do contain partially hydrogenated oil. Points out the former food journalist, “The catch about claiming “no trans fat” is that the fat is calculated *per serving* — so the amount of trans fat in 11 chips (a serving per the label) is less than the FDA’s allowance per serving.”

The All Natural Pop Chips Parmesan Garlic Potato, tied for third place with Tostitos Scoops!, were also controversial. Reactions ranged from “surprisingly good – full of flavor, nice & crispy” (Trystan) and “interesting as a novelty” (Maria) to “just all-around meh.” Since Pop Chips come in other flavors, those might appease the likes of Howard, who enjoyed the “easy-to-bite, melt-in-mouth texture, the flavor sucks.”

Most consistent: Xochitl Totopos de Maiz, but not necessarily in a good way — “bland” was the oft-used term.

Most contradictory: Food Should Taste Good All Natural Chips Cheddar Tortilla Chips. Ironically, the arguably healthiest of the batch received complaints of being fake. “Odd flavor; the cheese flavor seems very artificial” (Victor). “Slight cheese and salt flavoring. Probably low in fat” (Brian). “Yuk! x 3. I don’t get it. Would be perfect for people on a diet” (Howard). Given these comments, this chip should’ve been embraced by the “resolutions” crowd. The olive one fared only slightly better — the women liked the olive flavor more. “Great flavas, dippable” (Krista).

Most nontraditional: Calbee Snack Salad Snapea Crisps. Yes, I fooled nobody. As our editorial stats man Eric (who nibbled but didn’t vote) put it, “You can’t bring dehydrated string beans (sic) to a super bowl party. That just ain’t gonna fly. You’re better off with stuff that appeals to the masses — like Fritos or plain chips with dip.” Hey, a bowl couldn’t hurt.

Now, the rankings and reality check.

Chip-taste rankings and nutritional guide, per serving
Chips Calories Fat (g) Sodium (mg) Carbs Protein (g)
  1. Kettle Reduced Fat
130 6 (0.5 saturated, 1 polyunsaturated, 4.5 monounsaturated) 170 (also lists 470 mg potassium) 19 2
  1. Ruffles
160 10 (1 saturated, 2.5 polyunsaturated, 5 monounsaturated) 160 (340 mg potassium) 15 2
  1. Pop Chips(tie)
120 4 (0.5 saturated, 0.5 polyunsaturated, 2.5 monounsaturated) 220 (220 mg potassium) 19 2
  1. Tostitos Scoops!(tie)
140 7 (1 gr saturated, 3 polyunsaturated, 2 monounsaturated) 120 19 2
  1. Doritos Nacho Cheese(tie)
150 8 (1.5 g saturated) 210 17 2
  1. Fritos Scoops! Corn Chips(tie)
160 10 (1.5 saturated, 5 polyunsaturated, 3 monounsaturated) 110 16 2
  1. Hawaiian Kettle Style Potato Chips
140 9 (2 saturated) 110 15 1
  1. Food Should Taste Good Olive
140 6 (0.5 unsaturated, 0.5 polyunsaturated, 4.5 monosaturated) 140 (50 mg potassium) 18 2
  1. Calbee SnackSalad Snapea Crisps
130 6 (1 saturated) 100 15 4
  1. Food Should Taste Good Cheddar
140 7 (1 saturated, 1 polyunsaturated, 4.5 monounsaturated) 135 (90 mg potassium) 17 3
  1. Xochitl Totopos de Maiz (unsalted)
135 6 (1 saturated) 0 19 2