How we tested
Salsa is now America’s best-selling condiment, so it’s not surprising that tortilla chips are poised to soon overtake potato chips as America’s favorite salty snack. According to data from IRi, a Chicago-based market research firm, tortilla chip sales grew at nearly double the rate of potato chip sales in 2014.
Tortilla chips are traditionally made from yellow or white corn, but we’ve noticed an increase in products made with blue corn. We reached out to manufacturers and learned that—for some smaller, health-focused brands—these blue corn products are just as popular as traditional white or yellow corn chips. We gathered seven nationally available tortilla chip products: three made from blue corn and four made from white or yellow corn (if a company made multiple products, we selected its most popular variety). Twenty-one America’s Test Kitchen staffers sampled the chips plain and—to see how well they could scoop—with salsa and guacamole.
To our surprise, blue corn chips universally sank to the bottom of the pack. Many tasters detected “slightly bitter,” “burnt,” or “beany” notes in blue corn chips that stood in stark contrast to the “sweet,” “mild” flavor of white and yellow corn chips. How did these pretty chips end up at the bottom of our rankings? Blue corn gets its vibrant hue from large concentrations of pigment-producing chemicals called anthocyanins in its kernels; the same chemicals responsible for the bright color of eggplants, blackberries, and grapes. In addition to a blue hue, anthocyanins can contribute a slightly bitter, astringent flavor to foods, particularly when they’re cooked.
Blue chips were also universally lacking in salt, with most having between 60 and 80 milligrams of sodium per serving, compared with 110 to 115 milligrams of sodium in higher-ranked products. Chips with less than 110 milligrams (including one white corn product) were “bland” and “overly sweet.” Tasters thought that saltier chips were more “authentic,” “fresh,” and “bright.” We tried salting one of the blue corn chip products to see if it would improve the flavor, but it wasn’t enough to mask the beany aftertaste.
Testers dipped the chips in our winning medium chunky salsa and our Hearty Guacamole to evaluate how well each held its shape. While most chips maintained their structure, a few products turned soggy under salsa or crumbled on a drag through guacamole. Tasters preferred thick chips with curved or curled edges that could trap dips. A thicker chip didn’t necessarily mean a denser chip, though. We favored chips with large air pockets, which added structural support while still maintaining a crispy, flaky texture that wasn’t too dense or stiff.
Our new favorite chips were reformulated right before our tasting, and while the manufacturer wouldn’t disclose exactly what it changed, it’s certainly doing something right. These chips were light, flaky, and crispy, with a bright corn taste.