Oct 062010

As I began looking at what goes into food I was surprised by the ingredients in packets of chips.  It turns out that different flavours vary wildly in terms of ingredients and additives, and there are general patterns that apply across many brands.  Perhaps the most surprising thing of all is that good old plain salty chips are remarkably simple and natural!

Smiths original chip packet
Smiths Salt and Vinegar packet

Smiths Original crinkle cut chips contain only three ingredients, and no additives; Salt & Vinegar chips of the same brand contain many more ingredients, including MSG

One of the food additives that many people recommend avoiding is monosodium glutamate, or “MSG”.  This is a common flavour enhancer and has the number 621.  The list that I am currently using suggests avoiding other glutamate additives and flavour enhancers with numbers 620-625, 627, 631, and 635.

I know from experience with asian take-away noodles that MSG leaves me with a dry feeling in my throat. This “unquenchable thirst” is apparently quite a common indicator of MSG, and is rather unpleasant. This flavour enhancer has a long association with asian restaurants, and in response to changing attitudes many of them are now advertising “MSG-free” menus.

It seems almost universal that Salt & Vinegar chip flavouring involves MSG.  In fact, additives are included in most of the flavours other than plain or salted. It doesn’t make much difference whether the product is being marketed as a healthy or natural alternative to “ordinary” chips, which is disappointing.

Once I started looking, I was able to find a few flavoured chips without the long list of additive numbers. I will be choosing these preferentially from now on, and trying to avoid the MSG enhanced varieties. This same rule of thumb applies to corn chips, where the plain or salted flavours have much simpler ingredients.

This is not a detailed analysis of which chips are the most healthy (or should that be “the least unhealthy”?), and I’m sure there are important factors other than additives. Even the most plain chips probably have large amounts of fat and salt, and should therefore be consumed in moderation.

potato grills packetPotato grills s-and-v packet

Potato Grills are marketed as a healthier alternative to ordinary chips, but still have the same pattern of additivies in the Salt & Vinegar flavour

Nature's earth corn chip packet - saltedNature's earth corn chips - cheesy

Even with natural corn chips, the plain salted flavour is much simpler than the cheesy one

red-rock-deli salted chip packetred-rock-deli cheddar chip packet

Red Rock Deli makes a flavour without MSG, but even here the plain chips are much simpler

  5 Responses to “When the chips are down”

  1. Very interesting Lachlan. At uni the idea of a central “Food Goodness” repository with access via barcode scanning on your phone has been discussed many times. I often wonder how hard it would really be to start an open database of supermarket foods commonly available in Australia. The mobile app could give you 2 simple scores, one for sustainability and the other for health. The same app could calculate other useful information, for example the total amount of saturated fats or sugar you buy per week, or your average shopping trips carbon footprint.
    Let me know if you’re interested and we’ll get some useful people together and make it happen!

  2. That’s a great idea, Adam. I have an Android phone, and it would be great to be able to scan a barcode and see a nice clear tick or cross against a few criteria. It would certainly be faster than trying to find and read the ingredients list!
    As a regular contributor to Wikipedia and OpenStreetMaps, I immediately thought of a wiki-style database for the mobile app to look-up. This way users could add items they used regularly, and collectively the database would be quickly and broadly populated.
    I’m definitely interested in making this happen!

  3. Hey Lachlan,
    Did u guys end up doing anything with this? Would be very useful!!

  4. I would like to point out a simple oversight. Other than plain, Red Rock Deli do not produce a flavor without MSG.

    Unfortunately MSG does not need to be labelled clearly. Yeast extract is MSG (yes, Vegemite is also just a big jar of MSG). Free glutamic acid is really the mother of MSG, as mono-sodium glutamate is simply the sodium salt of glutamic acid. Ask a manufacturer if it has MSG, and they could either lie or misdirect you. But mention glutamic acid, and listen to them cower.

    Please visit this site for a list of ingredients that either contain glutamic acid or produce it

    This might be a bit off-topic, but it’s very important. Avoid aspartame. It is commonly found in any low sugar drink, including pepsi (which has been standardized in cinemas! Children are being fed these chemicals from a very young age.)

  5. Those ‘red rock’ flavoured chips looks like they do have MSG in them… it’s called ‘natural flavours’ and is one of many names that food producers are allowed to call MSG (also names like hydrolized protein or protein extract). Basically there are a whole bunch of chemicals that aren’t technically MSG, but have the same active free-glutamine and cause the same effects in the body, and are used by food producers in place of MSG because they know we’re on the lookout for the dreaded 621!

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