• Health

Food: Sizing Up Super Snacks

4 minute read
Joel Stein

You don’t want awesome Super Bowl food. Sure, it makes for interesting halftime conversation of the “There’s something really interesting about your chili … oh, it’s venison chili” variety. But a football game is no time to feel civilized and smart; it’s a time to feel amazed and American. And that means crunching down the whole game on the newest innovations in snacks that only U.S. foodmakers can dream up: “We made tortilla chips into scoop shapes? Good luck competing with that, China!” You want people to leave your party remembering, for the rest of their lives, where they were when they first tasted what it must be like to be at a cool ranch.

One of the biggest trends in the snack industry, unfortunately, is making things organic. This is stupid. Going highbrow with lowbrow is as unsatisfying as going lowbrow with highbrow (venison chili). Sure, the Planters Organic nut selections or the upcoming Newman’s Own organic salsas are maybe, possibly, kind of healthier, but they taste the same. The Planters NUT-rition Energy Mix, however, brilliantly coats nutrition in energy–where nutrition is nuts and sesame sticks and energy is delicious sugar. Turns out even soy nuts are good if you coat them in chocolate.

Far worse than organic snacks are the traditional ones trying to be healthy. There are 100-calorie packs of everything, which can’t be good for the environment, since you have to open three or four bags every time you eat. “The big trend is all this craziness over trans fats,” says Jeremy Selwyn, 36, a Boston software engineer who runs reviews of more than 3,300 snacks on taquitos.net and for the past three years has been an attendee at Snaxpo, the snack-food industry’s annual trade show. He bemoans the loss of fried flavor in Cape Cod–brand potato chips after their switch to canola oil. “Snacks aren’t supposed to be healthy,” he says. “They’re supposed to taste good.” Those are the kinds of statements that get you high fives in the back rooms of Snaxpo.

The Lay’s chips I tried, which are now made with sunflower oil, managed to taste exactly the same. And at Tostitos, the geniuses who figured out how to make cornmeal bend into a scoop have a baked line that also seems to have kept the quality, although the Tostitos All Natural Picante Sauce is a bit watery and a tiny bit sweeter than you would expect, considering there’s no sugar. Still, eating them made me feel like a snack wimp. If I’m man enough to watch men tackle one another, I’m man enough to work a little partial hydrogenation through my arteries.

The new snack flavors seem to clump around versions of salt and pepper, wasabi and pickle. But the flavor breakthrough has been to finally combine the taste of buffalo wings with the flavor of blue-cheese dip. Kettle Krinkle Cut Chips Buffalo Bleu is a thick potato chip that manages to deliver the slight spice of barbecue with a cool, creamy aftertaste. It’s impressive, but there’s a vinegar taste that gets in the way. Doritos Blazin’ Buffalo & Ranch isn’t nearly as complicated, but it takes that weird Cool Ranch flavor I never liked, puts it up front and then immediately buries it with a shot of hot sauce. It tastes new and stupid and wonderful.

But to really impress your guests, as Selwyn is pressured to do every Super Bowl, he suggests ordering ketchup potato chips from Canada, where they have become a sensation. Or the Pringles Select bags (not cans) of rice (not potato) Szechuan Barbecue crisps. He also recommends Ozark Mountain Popcorn’s root-beer-float flavor. Though, if you need to do that to impress your friends at a party, you may have problems no snack can help.

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