Attack of the Killer Potatoes

Potato chips are a go-to snack food ever since their creation in the late 19th century. The origin story of potato chips is murky (but interesting!), but the basic way they came to be is clear: someone thinly sliced some potatoes, fried them in oil, tossed in some salt, and served up the new creation, delighting eaters. And ever since then, we’ve been trying to find easier and better ways to make potato chips. (If you want to see how potato chips are made nowadays, Discovery Channel has a pretty good five minute video on it, which you can watch here.) Combine increases of technology with our love of snacks and you’ll get some great ideas.

And some really, really, bad ones. Potentially fatal ones, even.

That problem potato is known as the Lenape potato. It was developed in the 1960s to solve for a pretty simple sounding problem — increase the amount of starch in a typical chip-making potato. A starchy potato, as io9 notes, will give the snacker the right texture and eating experience, while less starchy ones yield chips which are more chewy than anyone would care for. The Lenape potato, the Los Angeles Times explained, was bred to account for that need — the Lenape “was considered to have the perfect characteristics for making potato chips.” And as a bonus, the Lenape was a hardy crop, which, in the words of the Times, “was immune to such troublesome plant diseases as late blight, mild mosaic and tuber necrosis.”

But those immunities came at a cost. Potatoes are able to fight off blight and the like through a naturally-occurring poison called solanine. The more solanine the potato has, the more likely the plant will survive. The reason the Lenape potato was immune to all of those things was due to the high amount of solanine in the cultivar. That’s good if you’re a potato, but not so good if you’re a human. Because solanine, in high enough amounts, is toxic to us people. Many experience severe nausea, vomiting, and a case of the runs.

As Boing Boing reported, that’s exactly what happened to those who snacked on Lenape-made chips: “some of the people who were the first to eat Lenapes — most of them breeders and other professionals in the agriculture industry — ended up with severe nausea, like a fast-acting stomach bug.” While Lenapes may have made for a really great potato chip, they also came with a really terrible, unintended, bonus feature. Oops.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recalled the Lenape potatoes and, after running various tests, discovered that the cultivar had about four times as much solanine as the more commonly-used Russet potato of the same mass. Lenapes are no longer used for potato chips — or, for that matter, anything else.

Bonus Fact: Pringles-brand potato chips are a great example of our on-going quest for the perfect chip. In 2006, an IBM executive explained why to CNN: “Pringles potato chips are designed using [supercomputing] capabilities — to assess their aerodynamic features so that on the manufacturing line they don’t go flying off the line.” Unfortunately, no video of flying potato chips was provided to CNN by the IBM exec.

From the ArchivesGreen Potato Chips: Open a bag of chips see some green around the edges of a few of them? Guess what? That’s a sign of solanine!

RelatedA home microwave potato chip maker. Seven reviews of 5 stars each, somehow. The “customer questions and answers” are to the point and strangely funny.