This year, the potato chip celebrates its 157th birthday, and holds the distinction of being the No. 1 snack food in America.

The potato chip was a culinary creation born out of sarcasm — not inspiration.


In the summer of 1853, a disgruntled chef, George Crum, was annoyed when a customer  repeatedly returned french fries to the kitchen at an elegant resort in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., for being too chunky. So he fried a sliver of potato to foil the finicky customer from being able to skewer it with a fork. 


The customer was delighted with the potato chip and asked for more. The rest is history.


This year, the potato chip celebrates its 157th birthday, and holds the distinction of being the No. 1 snack food in America.


Billions of dollars


The potato chip brought in more than $3 billion in sales in 2009, according to the Snack Food Association. Those figures do not include mass merchandisers such as club stores.


In the early 19th century, chips were delivered to stores where consumers bought fresh goods in barrels and had them weighed at the counter, said James McCarthy, president and chief executive officer of the Snack Food Association.


Because the potato chip was fragile and broke in the process, home-based chip makers sprouted, and they brought them to the store in the wax paper bags ready made.


By the mid 1900s production grew, and machinery enhanced popularity of the product, McCarthy said.


“They all started out of the family home and grew into production line facilities and a lot of machinery was created to enhance the production capability,” he said.


And while time has given consumers many choices and fancy flavors, the simple, plain chip is the most popular, according to McCarthy. The No. 1 brand is Frito-Lay. Yet the potato chip’s popularity does not reflect its nutritional value, which is zero.


“They are not healthy and never will be,” said Mary Beth Green, a dietitian at The William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich, Conn.


Even the baked chip, with less calories, is still significantly caloric enough to “not be worth it,” Green noted.


A 1-ounce serving of chips contains about 150 calories, equaling about 15 chips. And the flavored chips tend to have a little more salt, Green warns, so it is important to compare labels on brands.


Those labels can be tricky. For example, the package can tout lower salt, but in many cases that means lower salt than the company’s usual salt content on chips.


Green also warned of the way most people eat chips — it is easy to exceed 1 ounce quickly.


“Most people don’t stop at 1 ounce. They are eating quite a few more than that,” Green said.