Can vegetable crisps live up to their health halo?

Despite the product's perceived goodness, many brands actually contain the same levels of salt and fat, while delivering little added nutrition.

12 June 2018
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image credit: bhofack2/iStock/Thinkstock

Ask nine out of ten people what is less healthy – a packet of traditional crisps or one of the myriad vegetable crisp brands on shop shelves.

Consumers would be unwise to bet their homes on the answer. Registered nutritionist Charlotte Stirling-Reed says the truth is, in most cases, vegetable crisps.

The assumption is that vegetables equal healthy or, at least, healthier – and that is exactly what marketing wizards bet on. However, the vegetables that commonly go into vegetable crisps, such as parsnip and beetroot, are more porous than the potatoes used in potato crisps, which means they soak up more oil.

Stirling-Reed remarks such items may have a few extra nutrients but they will contain similar or even more fat and salt.

“I think vegetable crisps have some kind of health halo over them and a lot of people are surprised by the fact they aren’t actually necessarily healthy,” she says.

Many of the products on the shelves also have high levels of salt, sometimes coyly described as “a pinch of salt” or “lightly salted.”

Stirling-Reed researched the issue last summer for Wren Kitchens and found a bag of Tyrrells Mixed Root Vegetable Crisps, for example, contained 14.3g of fat in a 40g serving, compared with 8.3g in a Krispy Kreme Original Glazed Doughnut.

So is there a technological barrier to making vegetable crisps live up to their healthier image? And how can brands ensure their products deliver on nutritional goodness?

Putting the ‘crisp’ in crisps

The answer is yes and it is also no. There are sacrifices to be made if you forgo the salt and the fat. Fat is tasty and frying in oil creates the ‘crisp’ in crisps. Salt adds flavour and is a preservative, helping to achieve buyer specifications for longer shelf life.

The problem with the salt is that many brands range from 1g of salt per 100g up to 1.8g – and who stops eating when they’ve reached 100g, especially when curled up on the couch in front of Britain’s Got Talent with a couple of family-sized bags and a bowl of peanuts?

It is not difficult to see how quickly it is possible to reach the adult daily maximum of 6g of salt when you add snacking to three daily meals.

Nim’s, however, an innovator in the sector, does not have salt or oil added to its vegetable crisps.

Founder Nimisha Raja explains that most mass-produced products use class two and three vegetables because they are cheaper, but they lack flavour so seasoning is added. Close your eyes while eating them and she challenges anyone to be able to tell if they are parsnip, carrot or beetroot.

They use a lot of oil – the more oil, the better the seasoning sticks, she explains.

Nim’s claims to use the best vegetables that have flavour in themselves. “Technically you can make them without being smothered in oil and salt. We do exactly that.”

What you gain on authenticity, however, Nim’s loses in crunch. “Frying adds to the crispness. You can’t get that kind of crispness doing anything else,” says Raja.

Nim’s leaves the skin on, washes, slices and air-dries instead for fries. Nothing is added.

“What that does is take away the water to leave the beautifully earthy beetroot taste or the sweet parsnip taste.”

Raja invested more than £250,000 in bespoke air-drying machinery and sold her house to help fund it.

“A lot of our crisps are really high in vitamin C and a lot of fibre as well. It’s the temperatures, the air-drying process and the time it’s in there, but the fibre is there because we leave the skin and the core and everything intact – and that’s where the nutrition is.”

But she admits her crisps are a bit ‘Marmite.’ Some people love them and others say, “Oh my God why do you even bother making this, it’s cardboard, it’s horrible, it’s hard…so it really divides people. It’s a different texture. Ours is crispy but it takes a lot more chewing.”

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