If you’re an average American, the USDA Economic Research Service says you’ve eaten 17 pounds of potato chips annually since 2000. And if you’re like me, you may have refused a few for nutritional reasons, but not many based on sustainability grounds.

When my editor mentioned she’d heard potato chips were the least sustainable snack food on the shelf, I wanted to know whether that label applied across the snack aisle or if I could be sustainably choosy and still get my crispy fix on Super Bowl Sunday.

According to Internet calculators, it requires up to 90 gallons of water to move a spud from bud to bag. Potatoes are a thirsty crop to start. And in average 15-minute run along production line, a potato travels along a water canal to be washed, tumbles in a steel drum with a water spray to be peeled and gets rinsed multiple times before and after it has been sliced. Producing a bag of chips puts a pound of carbon dioxide into the air (the equivalent to driving your car a little less than 2 miles, according to a food carbon emissions calculator built by Portland, Oregon-based CleanMetrics). Focus groups say chips must be blemish free and light in color, so chip makers employ quality controls to discard edible but ugly chips. And then there’s all that mostly unrecyclable packaging designed to keep the chips light, crisp and intact as they make their way to your snack drawer – or more likely your belly.

Sautéed unions for Christine Burns Rudalevige's onion dip.

Sautéed unions for Christine Burns Rudalevige’s onion dip. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

The most sustainable chip is one you make yourself from local potatoes, Maine sea salt and organic oil you’ve strained and reused before turning it into biodiesel fuel. But if DIY chips are not your thing, here is some criteria to help you locate greener options:

Still look for Maine potatoes. The Maine Potato Board says the state’s seasonal climate gives potatoes the right mix of sun and rain, and therefore irrigation is kept to a minimum. Typically, cold winters mean fewer potato pests, which holds pesticide use on the Maine potato crop to about one-tenth the national average. And the University of Maine is using traditional breeding methods to develop new varieties – like the Sebec – especially suited for potato chip production.

Local pitch duly made, understand that the vast majority of Maine potatoes are trucked out of state to be made into fries and chips. Shipping out whole potatoes to have them shipped back as chips does not earn “eat local” accolades. Two commercially available chips made in Maine from Maine potatoes are Freeport-based Vintage Maine Kitchen and Fox Family Potato Chips, based in Presque Isle. The former sources Norwis and Keuka Gold potatoes from Bell Farms in Auburn, fries and seasons them with salt from the Maine Sea Salt Co. (and in some bags Maine maple syrup) and sells them in about 100 restaurants and specialty food stores between Boston and Dover-Foxcroft. Fox Family Chips sources russets from Double G Farms in Blaine, has a similar geographical distribution and recently inked a deal to ship chips to New Haven, Connecticut, and New York.

Both Vintage Maine Kitchen’s Kelly Brodeur and Rhett Fox, who heads up his family’s business, say their hands-on small-batch approach requires minimal fossil fuel energy in comparison with their larger competitors. Moreover, both have chosen oils that balance cost, sustainability and flavor across their product lines.

Brodeur uses a non-GMO high oleic (a feature that helps with shelf-live) sunflower oil produced in the United States and recycles it with Maine Biofuels in Portland. Fox opts for a canola oil, which he filters and reuses to reduce waste.

These local chip makers say a little color shows character and seasonality in a chip rather than rendering it food waste. As a potato is pulled from the dirt and stored over the winter, its starches are converted to sugar, which caramelizes when it hits hot oil, adding flavor and interesting shades of brown to the chips.

Both Brodeur and Fox admit their foil-based packaging is not recyclable – as small producers, they say their options are limited – but they are hopeful that better alternatives will come down the pike soon. Brodeur is working to collect spent Vintage Maine Kitchens bags to be reused in community arts projects. Chip eaters are invited to send or bring their (preferably rinsed) bags to the company’s Freeport facility located at 491 US Route 1, Suite 10.

Regardless of the less than sustainable packaging parameters, though, both are absolutely convinced their efforts to produce greener chips means they make ones that taste as they should: more like potatoes.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, a recipe developer and tester and a cooking teacher in Brunswick. Contact her at: [email protected]

Christine Burns Rudalevige's makes her onion dip. (Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer)

Christine Burns Rudalevige’s makes onion dip using local products. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

NOTHING BUT LOCAL ONION DIP

Come on, I know you love Lipton Onion Soup Mix Onion Dip with your chips. This one bypasses the preservatives and the miles traveled. Serve with local chips.
Serves 6-­8

3 pounds local onions (5-6 medium onions)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon granulated maple sugar
(2 teaspoons of maple syrup will do in a pinch)
8 ounces local cream cheese
16 ounces local Greek-style yogurt
Salt and pepper
1/4 cup chopped chives or minced scallion tops

Peel and dice the onions quite finely. Melt the butter in olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and maple sugar, reduce heat to low, and cook slowly until the onions have caramelized, about 30 minutes. Since the onions are cut small and cooking with sugar, they will brown quickly. What you’re looking for is a deep, dark, caramelized brown and a slightly shriveled texture. Cooking them to this point both colors the dip and allows the onions to almost reconstitute with the liquid in the dairy products, which will keep the dip from separating.
Cool the onions for 15 minutes. Blend the onions with the cream cheese and yogurt in a food processor. Season with salt and pepper. Chill for at least 30 minutes before serving. Garnish with chives or scallions.