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Fry it, you might like it!

Are vegetable chips another way to eat your spinach?

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Add enough oil and salt, and people will eat just about anything — even their vegetables. At least that's the indication from the growing number of "veggie" chips coming on the market. Once just seen around health food stores, a variety of these savory snacks is now on mainstream supermarket shelves. (On the sweeter side, apple and banana chips have been around a long time.)

Although veggie chips boast organic ingredients and taste more healthful than the usual potato or tortilla chips, snackers should be wary. Many are high in fat, and some don't contain a lot of vegetables other than potato flour. Most have only small amounts of vitamins and minerals. So if you're munching on them for nutrition, you're better off chomping a carrot stick or a stalk of broccoli.

"Vegetables that are minimally processed usually provide the highest nutrient amount for calories. This is called high nutrient density," said Christine Krstic, a dietitian with the 5 A Day Association that encourages Utahns to eat more fruits and veggies.

"Vegetables that are prepared with more than 30 percent of their calories coming from fat per serving are not counted as a vegetable serving by the 5 A Day Guidelines. So while these veggie chips may appear to be 'healthier' to consumers, they might want to think twice before digging in. Like potato chips, they belong at the top of the Food Guide Pyramid — in the fats, oils and sweets group."

In other words, they're fine as an occasional snack, but not as a replacement for regular vegetables. Fat- and calorie-wise, they are pretty comparable to regular potato chips (a 1-ounce serving of regular chips gives you about 150 calories, and 50 to 60 percent of those are from fat.)

Veggie chips are just a blip on the radar screen of America's $20.69 billion savory snack sales, which grew 6.4 percent from 1999 to 2000. Potato chips are the top snack, with tortilla chips in second place.

"Snacking is on the rise in the United States due to Americans eating on the go more frequently to accommodate their busy lifestyles," said James A. McCarthy, president of the Snack Food Association, a national trade organization.

New flavors and styles of munchies have also fueled the rise in snack food sales, he said. While they will probably never take over as the favorite savory snack, the flavors of sweet potatoes, spinach, tomato, taro root, beets and other veggies offer a change of pace from the usual potato or corn chips.

So how tasty are the new snacks on the block?

A panel of 11 taste-testers assembled by the Deseret News, (six women and five men between ages 30 to 50) tried five different kinds of vegetable chips. We also checked the label information for nutritional content. Here's how they stacked up, in order of taster preference:

TERRA EXOTIC VEGETABLES ($4.29 per 6-ounce bag) took top honors for flavor and color. It contains a rainbow of chips — taro root, a white chip with purplish-brown lines; a pale cassava; deep orange sweet potato; taro colored ruby-red with beet juice; parsnip; and light brown batata.

The label boasts that Terra Chips are 30 percent less fat and low in sodium. But a 10-chip serving is 140 calories and 50 percent fat, so these aren't exactly a dieter's delight. Nutrition-wise, a serving will give you 4 percent of the daily recommended intake for vitamin C, 2 percent of calcium, 2 percent iron and 3 grams of fiber.

Several tasters said they would spend their own money on these: "They would be fun to bring to a party because of all the different colors."

In fact, that's what New York chefs Dana Sinkler and Alex Dzieduszycki thought back in 1990 when they made these as a signature party dish for their catering business. They were such a hit that by 1993, the two gave up catering to oversee the chip business.

GARDEN OF EATIN' BLACK BEAN CHILI CHIPS ($2.29 per 8-ounce bag) are made with organic black beans and yellow corn. (OK, corn chips are pretty common, but you don't find a lot of chips made out of beans.) These ranked second of the five varieties of chips we tested. They're almost teeth-breaking thick, but some of our testers liked the crunch. Some also liked the bold jalapeo flavor, others complained they were too hot. A 13-chip serving gives you 140 calories and 60 fat calories. They also contain 2 grams of fiber, 2 grams of protein, and 4 percent of the daily recommendation for both iron and calcium. (Terra Chips and the Garden of Eatin' labels are both part of the Hain Celestial Group (which also makes Nile Spice and other "healthy" foods).

TERRA SWEET POTATOCHIPS ($2.99 per 6-ounce bag) are the highest in fat —160 calories per ounce and 100 fat calories. As a redeeming factor, they don't contain any added salt, and they have 90 percent of the recommended intake for vitamin A, 3 grams of fiber, and 2 percent of the recommended intake for both calcium and iron. Several tasters said they liked the flavor, but one commented, "Looks like old, dried food."

JENSEN'S ORCHARD VEGGIE CHIPS ($2.99 per 8-ounce bag) were described by our tasters a "Bugles without the taste." Others described the texture as "Styrofoam" and "too puffy." These pale green, orange and beige chips list potato starch first in the ingredient label, and tomato and spinach last, after salt. According to law, ingredients must be listed in the order of amounts used in the product, from the most to the least. You're not getting a lot of real vegetables in a serving. These have 170 calories per ounce with 90 calories from fat, and offer 6 percent of the daily recommended vitamin C.

GOOD HEALTH VEGGIE STIX ($3.99 per 8-ounce bag). These french fry-shaped snacks were the least liked by the tasters. Some comments were: "Taste reminds me of old french fries" and "Cheetos without the cheese." "Taste like you're eating air." Again, these don't offer a lot of real vegetables. A one-ounce serving gives you 140 calories, 60 fat calories, and 2 percent of the daily recommended iron.

If you want to try your hand at making your own vegetable chips, you can simply thinly slice your favorite veggies, deep-fry in hot oil and lightly salt them. Or, you can try a low-fat version with this recipe for baked veggie chips from www.Allrecipes.com. If you have a food processor with a fine-slicing blade, or a mandolin, you can cut the veggies super-thin.


BAKED MEDITERRANEAN-STYLE CHIPS

2 tablespoons cooking oil

1/2 teaspoon garlic salt

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme, crushed

1/4 teaspoon dried oregano, crushed

1/8 teaspoon pepper

3 cups peeled root vegetables such as sweet or white potatoes, parsnips or carrots (1 pound), sliced 1/4-inch thick

In a large bowl stir together the oil, garlic salt, thyme, oregano and pepper. Add vegetable slices and toss gently until well-coated. Arrange in a single layer on lightly greased baking sheets. Bake in a preheated 350 degree-oven for 20-25 minutes, or until crisp and light golden brown. Serve warm.


DILLED CHIPS

2 tablespoons cooking oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon dried dillweed

1/8 teaspoon salt

3 cups peeled root vegetables such as sweet or white potatoes, parsnips or carrots, cut in 1/4 inch-thick slices (about 1 pound)

In a large bowl stir together the oil, garlic, dillweed and salt. Continue as directed above. Add vegetable slices and toss gently until well-coated. Arrange in a single layer on lightly greased baking sheets. Bake in a preheated 350 degree-oven for 20-25 minutes or until crisp and light golden brown. Serve warm.


E-MAIL: vphillips@desnews.com