How Popchips Are Made, Why They're So Popular

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[Photographs: Daniel Souza]

When you're a chip columnist you're given a lot of free chips to try. (Yes, it is amazing as it sounds). You're also offered innumerable chip recommendations, often from people you haven't spoken to in years (chips bring people together better than Christmas or national tragedies).

One brand of chip that's been rolling off friends' and friends of friends' tongues for months now is Popchips. Outside of these "pssst, you gotta check out"-recommendations, I wasn't completely oblivious to the brand, having maneuvered around their free-standing displays from time to time in order to access the Utz or snag a bag of Munchies, but I'd never popped one before. So you're probably thinking that I just grabbed a bag at the local five and dime and tried them, right?

Not so much. That may have been my go-to method in my civilian days, but now that I'm a chip czar for Serious Eats, I first do "research".

And it turns out that there is quite a bit to know about this San Francisco-based chippery. For one, celebrities love them! Ashton Kutcher has signed on as the company's President of Pop Culture. Heidi Klum is purportedly a big fan, and Katie Perry just joined the Popchips team as a creative partner. Their website is chock full of glowing endorsements from across the mediascape, with a heavy dose of health-focused publications leading the charge.

It was clear to me that these were some Pop(ular)chips. What I didn't yet understand was how they were made. That's right, more research (tough job alert!).

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The bag says "think popped! never fried. never baked". When I think popped, I think corn and I think about hitting the bottom of a large tub before the previews are over. But these are potato chips. So what's the connection?

Well, according to the folks at Popchips, they start with wholesome potatoes, add a little heat, pressure, and some snack magic and pop! It's a chip. Other sections of the website are equally vague about the manufacturing process, which leads one to believe it's proprietary*.

I can respect that the process is something of a trade secret, but let's not keep throwing around the phrase "snack magic". We all know that snack magic is waking up sunday morning, rolling over and miraculously finding three Doritos still left in the bag. A little more digging revealed that they employ a very cool process that looks nearly identical to that used to make puffed rice cakes.

*To be fair, I did eventually find a link on their site to an Unwrapped episode where double-daring Marc Summers lifted the proverbial curtain a bit higher.

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For rice cakes, grains of rice are hydrated to a specific percentage (generally between 14 and 18 percent of the weight of the rice), then placed in small quantities in the cylindrical chamber of a rice cake puffing machine. There, metal plates compress the moistened rice patty and heat it for a few seconds to temperatures of 400 degrees F or higher. The upper plate is then lifted, causing the rice grains to puff due to the sudden release of water vapor as a result of snack magic! flash vaporization. The softened rice fuses together and forms the cake. Picture a large-scale version of this. It's a process that Popchips seems to emulate by magically converting potatoes into perfectly hydrated kernels. Homework finished, I got down to the glorious business of snacking.

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With visions of running a California beach arm-in-arm with Kutcher and Klum, a P.Diddy (yep, he's invested in the brand too) hook looping in the air, I eagerly pried open the satisfyingly thick, textured matte plastic of a bag of gluten-free, kosher, vegan Original Potato Popchips, reached inside, and popped one.

...Record scratch ends P. Diddy track. White sand beach turns to sticky summer asphalt beneath Dan's feet and he's left standing hand-in-hand with the middle-aged twin brothers from South Boston who deliver his winter heating oil...

I don't get it. Sure, there's a solid initial crunch, but it's fleeting and then, well, sticky. If a Bugle and a spoon of Captain Crunch mated, the resulting snack would leave less chip matter lodged in my molars.

And the flavor? I started to have flashbacks to my Pringles post; these guys are obviously made mostly of spud, but they don't taste particularly potato-y to me. I'll concede that as I ripped into a couple flavor variations (cheddar and sour cream & onion) things improved, but I still wouldn't go out of my way to snack on these.

So why the popularity? I figured it must be that they are healthier than normal chips. Some quick nutritional referencing confirms that, indeed, Popchips have about 50 percent less fat than your average fried potato chip. Okay, well I can understand that upshot, but are they really the best lower fat potato snack game in town? Hardly. Heck, you can get real potato chips that clock in at roughly the same caloric load.

Cape Cod 40% Reduced Fat Potato Chips crunch and taste like real fried potato chips because they are real fried potato chips. No fascinating high-pressure chip wizardry, but Cape Cod holds their own by frying sliced potatoes in small batches and then flash baking them before sealing them in a bag with a lighthouse on it!*

*I'm not sure Cape Cod chips are available nationwide, but I have to believe there are other regional producers doing lower-fat chips well (if you know of any, please let me know in the comments and I'll try and do a roundup).

So why aren't Cape Cod chips all over the pages of healthy living magazines? Flummoxed, I poked around the internet for Cape Cod 40% Reduced Fat Potato Chips celebrity endorsement. The closest thing I found was a report of a small black bear earning local celebrity status for his appearances this year up and down the Cape.

About the author: Dan is an associate editor of Cook's Illustrated and an on-screen test cook for America's Test Kitchen. Dan cut his culinary teeth as a young apprentice in rural Hungary, and has the paprika-stained gut to prove it. He likes food, he likes science, and he likes you. Follow him on Twitter @testcook.

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