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Health and wellness

Why vegetable and fruit crisps can be healthy – just don’t eat them instead of the real thing

They have the satisfying crunch of a potato crisp, with all the vitamins and nutrients of vegetables, right? Well, not quite. While the new fad can be healthy, beware of the brands whose chips are fried and packed with salt

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 May, 2018, 8:15pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 May, 2018, 8:15pm

If you are looking for a good excuse to eat a pile of crisps, grocery store shelves are brimming with them. It seems nearly everything in the fresh produce aisle – whether it’s kale, sugar snap peas, apples or bananas – now comes crisped, seasoned and packaged.

Manufacturers seem to be hoping that people – most of whom don’t get the recommended daily amount of fruits and vegetables (not including fried potatoes) – will turn to crunchy snack items to help fill the nutrient gap. But are these new, crispy versions of fruits and vegetables any better for you than fried potatoes or regular crisps? Does a portion of baked kale crisps count as a serving of vegetables? It might, but there are a few things to consider.

Before packaged kale crisps even existed – much less in the dizzying array of flavours available now such as ranch, nacho and vampire killer (which I guess means garlicky) – I learned how tossing kale leaves with a little oil, sprinkling them with salt, and baking them turned the vegetable into a tasty, crispy, can’t-have-just-one snack that would thrill my daughter and her friends.

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It takes an entire bunch of kale and two baking sheets to make four servings, but I have always felt it was worth the effort, and I definitely count the result as a vegetable. After all, the amount of oil and salt I use to make them is about the same as if I had sautéed the greens.

Gauging from the many recipes online (which I have yet to try), many leafy greens and root vegetables such as carrots, beetroots and, of course, potatoes, are easily crisp-ified.

I have also long enjoyed making fruit crisps by slicing apples or pears very thinly and baking them until they are crunchy. I count those as eating fruit just as I would other dried fruit.

Granted, the baking process compromises some of the produce’s inherent healthfulness – particularly stripping it of vitamin C, which is especially heat sensitive, and some antioxidants – but nutrients such as minerals, fibre, protein and vitamin A are retained because they are fairly stable in the dry heat of the oven.

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Also, the crisping of produce is essentially dehydrating it, which can be a nutritional downside, given that the water in fruits and vegetables is valuable for increasing satiety, slowing down consumption and contributing to the body’s hydration.

Dehydrating fruit also concentrates its inherent sugars, making it more calorically dense. But if my daughter, her friends and I are having that much fun eating kale and apples, it seems worth the trade-off, especially if the crisps are replacing other, less healthy snacks.

Many of the packaged vegetable and fruit crisps sold today are pretty much the same deal: whole vegetables and fruit, with perhaps some oil, salt and seasonings added, which are baked or otherwise dehydrated until crisp.

Take the insanely popular sugar snap pea crisp, for example. The Better Health Foundation’s website identified them as a trend to watch in 2018; it said Pinterest searches for snap peas had risen 273 per cent during the past year.

The brands I found are made with sugar snap peas, salt and oil and have essentially the same basic nutritional profile (except for less vitamin C) as if you sautéed fresh sugar snap peas in a little oil with a pinch of salt.

The only problem is that it’s easy to keep popping the crisps in your mouth and mindlessly overeat them (getting too much oil and sodium in the process) in a way that isn’t an issue with raw or simply cooked fresh vegetables.

The same goes for packaged fruit crisps. It’s easy to find brands that have one simple ingredient – say, apples – and they are a delicious and healthy snack. But unlike when you make them at home – which gives you a built-in stopping point because you can only make them in relatively small batches – buying them by the bag could easily lead to mindlessly downing several apples’ worth in one sitting.

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Although these options are more healthful than many packaged snacks, other products are really just regular crisps in a kale coating.

At the worst end of the spectrum, I found a product sold simply as “kale crisps” which you might pick up thinking you are getting a real green vegetable. But their ingredient list revealed that they were mostly made of potato starch and potato flour and contained kale powder.

They lack the fibre, iron and vitamin A of crisps made mainly of whole kale, and they have nearly twice the sodium of regular potato crisps.

Many other “vegetable” crisps have the same profile – mostly potato flour and starch with a sprinkling of some colourful vegetable giving it a misleading health halo. Often they are baked, but sometimes they are fried, in which case you may as well eat regular potato crisps made from less processed whole potatoes.

The bottom line is that, no matter how healthy the name of the product may sound, you should turn the bag over and read the ingredient list so you really know what you are getting. And don’t count it as a vegetable or fruit unless it primarily is one, in minimally processed form.

While you’re at it, check out the sodium content – a reasonable upper limit is 170mg per 28g (one ounce) serving) – and be aware of the stated serving size, too.

Many varieties I have tried are heavily seasoned and salty (I have yet to find a store-bought kale crisp that isn’t too seasoned for my taste), and you might be surprised at how few crisps are in a serving.

So count baked crisps as a fruit or vegetable – certainly if you make them at home, and maybe if they’re from the store, depending on the kind you buy. Either way, they are best eaten on occasion as a healthier snack option in addition to – not instead of – fresh fruit and vegetables.