Claims about potato chips

by on December 28, 2011 at 1:13 am in Economics, Food and Drink | Permalink

You may be surprised to learn that potato chips are a health food; almost all chips (expensive or not) emphasized the healthiness of their products by using phrases like “low fat”, “healthier”, “no cholesterol”, or “lowest sodium level”. But these health-related claims occur on expensive chips 6 times as often as on inexpensive chips (6 times per bag versus once per bag). This difference in health language is not, as far as we can tell, due to actual differences in the chips. No chips in our sample contain trans fats, but only 2 out of the 6 inexpensive chips talk about it. By contrast, every one of the 6 expensive chips mentions the lack of trans fats.

Expensive chips also turn out to be much more natural. Phrases such as “natural”, “real”, or “nothing artificial” are 2.5 times more likely to be mentioned on expensive bags (7 times on each expensive bag but under 3 times on each inexpensive bag).

Another way to differentiate is to use negative markers, words like “never”, “not”, or “no” (“never fried”, “we don’t wash out the natural potato flavor”, “no wiping your greasy chip hand on your jeans”). Negation emphasizes bad qualities that a chip does not have, subtly suggesting that other brands have this bad quality. To get a more fine-grained analysis, we also regressed the number of negative words against the price. We found that a bag of potato chips costs 4 cents more per ounce for every additional negative word on the bag.

Finally, expensive chips are 5 times more likely to distinguish themselves from other chips, using comparative phrases like “less fat than other leading brands”, “best in America”, “in a class of their own”. or “a crunchy bite you won’t find in any other chip”. Where text on the inexpensive chips focuses on the chips themselves, ads for expensive chips emphasize their differences from “lesser” chips.

…Mentions of tradition occurred more than twice as often on inexpensive chips. Our linear regression showed that every time a family or an American locale is mentioned, the price per ounce of the chips drops 10 cents. The inexpensive chips thus represent a model of authenticity rooted in family traditions and family-run companies, and set in regional locations throughout America.

That is from Dan JurafskyHis blog, on food and language, is interesting throughout.

1 Andrew' December 28, 2011 at 1:56 am

And the government allows something less than a gram to be called zero grams. It’s amazing that rules derived by man can violate the most basic laws of nature such as conservation of mass. So, considering my coffee/creamer consumption I have realized I probably get 40 grams of trans fat a day.

2 msgkings December 28, 2011 at 12:27 pm

In the libertarian paradise you’d be allowed to claim zero grams of whatever you want, regardless of how much was in there. Damn gubmint regulashuns tellin’ me what I can and cain’t put on my tater chip bags!

3 Cliff December 28, 2011 at 1:27 pm

That probably would be ripe for a class action lawsuit.

Also, it is not impossible to imagine an independent labeling organization like Underwriter’s Laboratory.

4 tomcollins December 29, 2011 at 7:25 am

In the libertarian paradise that might be considered fraud, but a vendor could give no nutritional information, if they chose not to.

5 Dan Weber December 28, 2011 at 2:22 pm

It’s less than 0.500 grams that can be called 0 grams.

6 Dave December 28, 2011 at 2:18 am

I have a bag of chips beside me right now 🙂 and a glass of sparkling wine..

The bag says:

75% less saturated fat
100% natural
No artificial colours or flavours
Gluten free
100% Australian owned

7 Andrew' December 28, 2011 at 2:38 am

“No MSG” or “No MSG added”

“No MSG added” means “Packed with MSG”

8 Rahul December 28, 2011 at 3:13 am

In any case, isn’t there overwhelming evidence that MSG is mostly harmless?

9 Andrew' December 28, 2011 at 4:02 am

The kind of evidence that I think is irrelevant, probably.

10 ibuzone December 28, 2011 at 3:20 am

It’s hard to find a unpolluted, safe and nutritious food and eat comfortably. Damn industry.

11 Matt December 28, 2011 at 3:52 am

I’ve often wondered what distinguishes a given ingredient as ‘natural’. Where do the allegedly unnatural ingredients come from?

12 bluto December 28, 2011 at 9:54 am

I believe it’s mostly flavorings that are built from natural gas and water rather than CO2 and water by a cell.

13 Marie December 28, 2011 at 11:05 am

“Natural” has no defined FDA meaning. So I assume it means “buy me, hipsters” in marketing speak.

Flip the box over and read the label. If you can imagine what the ingredient looks like in your mind, it’s probably not what you’d like to imagine is natural. I’m not really sure what maltodextrin looks like in the wild. Maybe tiny little Dexters who like malted milk shakes.

14 Marie December 28, 2011 at 11:06 am

Er, can’t imagine it in your mind.

15 dearieme December 28, 2011 at 5:54 am

My newly favourite brand of crisps (as we call them) is “Passions”, which means that I must figuratively hold my nose when buying them. Which isn’t often because I’m too fat.

16 Bob Knaus December 28, 2011 at 7:14 am

I recommend Gibble’s, made in Chamberburg PA using lard same as they have been for decades. Used to be available only locally, now at Sam’s Club and several east coast grocery chains. They are both “healthy” and “traditional” so they cost no more than Wise or Lays but taste much much better. Seriously, the lard makes the difference.

17 Floccina December 28, 2011 at 12:44 pm

Real lard! Almost worth a trip to Sam’s right now.

18 maguro December 28, 2011 at 6:27 pm

Better than Wise? Blasphemy.

19 Mike Huben December 28, 2011 at 7:46 am

Unregulated competition also means unregulated lying.

That’s the glorious libertarian world of caveat emptor. It would be worse without regulations as to weight/volume on the label.

20 Andrew' December 28, 2011 at 8:17 am

Or, maybe we’d be talking about some packaging is misleading regardless of the existence of supposedly beneficial regulation.

21 Cliff December 28, 2011 at 8:56 am

Are there any lies discussed in this post? Just saying you are the “best”?

22 Claudia Sahm December 28, 2011 at 9:24 am

Mike, we’re talking about potato chips here…not some new vaccine. Marketing is all about highlighting the product attributes that will get the product sold at its set price. Words like “natural” and “healthy” fit the personal story of many people who don’t look much at the price tag and “50 percent more chips” appeal to those trying to keep costs down. Sometimes marketing gets silly (my personal favorite was a bag of “organic mulch”) but that doesn’t mean it is a lie. Just part of the lie we tell ourselves as we indulge on chips…and the tasty sour cream dip that pairs so well with them.

(Now I fully agree that regulation and enforcement is needed in the food industry. Labels with ingredients and suggested serving size should be accurate and present. We just can’t blame the marketers for our inability to eat just one chip.)

23 dan1111 December 28, 2011 at 11:48 am

In fact, claims about products are regulated. Chip makers can’t make blatantly false claims about their product (“contains no potatoes”, “cures cancer”, etc.). They can make subjective statements, and sometimes these statements are misleading.

However, it would be a counterproductive mess to regulate subjective statements. Who would decide what foods are “healthy”, “natural”, etc.? There is no agreed definition of these terms. Any definition that the government applied would necessarily be arbitrary. And what if the “crunchiest” chip was determined to be no crunchier than other brands? What would the consequences be?

Such regulations would create large compliance costs, cause the government to spend money, and have no clear benefit.

24 Rahul December 28, 2011 at 12:23 pm

Besides misrepresentation is a thin line: A capable competitor or journalist can use an egregious claim to beat you back with plenty of ridicule, notoriety and resultant branding harm.

25 Floccina December 28, 2011 at 12:30 pm

Have you even bought pot? If so did you get pot?

26 libert December 28, 2011 at 10:13 am

Mentions of tradition occurred more than twice as often on inexpensive chips. Our linear regression showed that every time a family or an American locale is mentioned, the price per ounce of the chips drops 10 cents.

I would have predicted the opposite. Those baked/organic/etc chips love to talk about how they were “created by a guy named Joe in his kitchen a small town in middle-America, showing how small businesses really can compete with the big guys, but only if you’re willing to pay 50% more for our chips, instead of selling out to the big corporate chip-makers”

Similarly, I’ve never seen a bag of Lays that talks about a “family or an American locale”.

27 yelsnab in calgary December 28, 2011 at 10:42 am

the best chips and dips are Old Dutch made in Winnipeg (Mexichili, Mesquite, Dill Pickle, Ketchup – terrific) – Kettle brand out of Oregon is also very good – every Lays flavour has sugar in it for some weird reason – never buy Simple brand from Shoppers Drug Mart – greasy awfulness

28 msgkings December 28, 2011 at 12:30 pm

Not so weird. Sugar tastes awesome to our lizard brains. ‘They’ put it in everything they can.

29 Andy January 20, 2012 at 7:24 pm

The bag of Lay’s I have right here says it has <1g of sugar per serving. The only ingredients are: potatoes, vegetable oil, and salt. So it's not like "they" are adding sugar.

30 D December 28, 2011 at 10:52 am

A a low-carb guy, to me the most unhealthy part of a potato chip is the potato.

31 Cliff December 28, 2011 at 11:17 am

Well, yeah. Eating potato chips is really no different than eating any other kind of potato. There’s a little sunflower oil, which isn’t bad for you other than the fact that it adds a few calories. The “only” thing bad about (all) potatoes is the high glycemic index simple carbs.

32 Andy January 20, 2012 at 7:26 pm

That’s not even really true. Depending on how you cook it, the glycemic index of a potato varies between 55-90, so it’s really more “medium”.

33 Jason December 28, 2011 at 10:54 am
34 Marie December 28, 2011 at 11:08 am

Laughed out loud in my cube.

35 msgkings December 28, 2011 at 12:32 pm

The alt text is hilarious too.

36 anon December 28, 2011 at 4:07 pm


37 Mike December 28, 2011 at 8:00 pm

Ha. I’ve been noticing how many things in the supermarket are now “GLUTEN FREE!!” even though they’ve always been gluten free and no one in his right mind would ever put gluten in them.

38 John G December 28, 2011 at 2:10 pm

‘All natural’ in the U.S. means ‘no food colorings added.’ it’s basically meaningless

39 Mike December 28, 2011 at 8:00 pm

I already assumed it was meaningless but that’s even more meaningless than I assumed!

40 Andy January 20, 2012 at 7:30 pm

The bag of Lay’s I have right here says the following:

– “Naturally delicious”
– “farm-grown potatoes”
– “no artificial flavors”
– “no preservatives”
– “no MSG”
– “0g trans fat”
– “gluten free”
– “no artificial flavors”

(some of these are repeated more than once)

So that’s 6 negative statements. I guess this means that Lay’s is an “expensive chip”?

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