Ketchup potato chips have long been the national snack of Canada, but we can't get them in the U.S. widely. Here's a taste test of 13 brands smuggled in from across the border.
The brief and disputed history of ketchup potato chips
Maple syrup, round bacon and poutine may be the best known Canadian exports, but our neighbors to the north are keeping more than national health care and Justin Trudeau all to themselves.
Ketchup potato chips have long been the national snack of Canada, but we can't get them in the United States widely. Yet we love ketchup and we love potato chips. So what's the story, eh?
"In the '70s, we were trying to mimic the taste of french fries and ketchup, and put it on a potato chip," said Katie Ceclan, senior director of marketing at Lay's in the U.S. "It's almost a sweeter barbecue."
The origin story of ketchup chips remains disputed, but Lay's does make one of the best-selling brands. "It has become an iconic flavor in Canada," said Ceclan.
That's a claim corroborated anecdotally by just about every Canadian who politely asked why I was getting so many bags, from Walmart and Whole Foods, as well as my many Chinese-Canadian cousins, who all added to the collection.
Why no ketchup chips here?
"We tend to see in the United States some of the profiles that are a little more smoky, even tangy," said Ceclan. "Think of the different barbecue flavors you might see that vary regionally."
Meanwhile, like just about anything, you can find them on Amazon, where Canadian ketchup chips are resold at a premium price. They currently range from around $9 for a snack-sized bag of Old Dutch, including shipping, to $255 for a 15-pack of standard-sized bags of Hardbite. You can order Herr's Heinz ketchup chips from Pennsylvania too, one of the few American brands.
After a family road trip to Canada earlier this summer, I brought back every brand of ketchup chips from the Greater Toronto Area that I could find, 13 in all. As an American, I feel I should note that this may be the biggest and best taste test of ketchup chips ever published. Most of the chips were potato, with a few exceptions, as you will see.
Eight Tribune journalists assembled in our test kitchen to taste the chips blind, writing tasting notes, then scores that determined the final ranking. Only two of us had ever had them previously, and only recently, so we held no nostalgic flavor memories. While I knew which brands I had bought, and did taste a few, I waited to taste them all in our test.
Here are the results of the great American taste test of Canadian ketchup chips, from worst to best.
"Is this a low-calorie ketchup Pringle?" wrote Sade Carpenter, Tribune Food and Dining deputy editor, who ranked these chips her lowest. "I thought excessive vinegar was the worst part of these chips, but the boring texture, lack of salt and flavor make this one a loser in my book."
"Bleh, too tomatoey. With an odd hint of cinnamon? WHY?" wrote reporter Grace Wong, who ranked these her worst.
"What is this B.S.?" wrote reporter Nick Kindelsperger, who ranked these his worst. "Small, circular rice cakes taste like sadness." Reporter Joe Gray also ranked them worst. "Look like the surface of someone's brain. Too sweet. Not much tomato at all, but at least salt is in there."
10. No Name
"So sour there must have been a vinegar accident at the plant," Louisa Chu wrote about these chips, which she ranked as worst. Nick shockingly ranked them as a top three. "This one understands the balance of vinegar and sugar, which is the secret to ketchup's power."
"These chips are the most like drinking ketchup straight out of the bottle," wrote Natalie Wade, former RedEye and Chicago Tribune intern who ranked these worst. "That doesn't mean I would recommend them, she added. On the other hand, Tony Purcelli, digital news editor, ranked them best. "This seems like it must be the classic ketchup chip. Good crisp ridges, strong standard ketchup flavor." Tony even drew a little winner's ribbon on his tasting notes.
"These taste like stale Cheetos," wrote Tony about these, which he ranked worst. Joe thought they looked like cheese snacks too, but ranked them in his top three. "Cheeto-orange dustings. Has a bit of smoke at the end. Like barbecue chips with a sweet edge. But not tomatoey." Grace liked them even more. "Tasty as heck," she wrote, underlined three times.
"Dark red and bursting with fine flavor of ketchup," wrote Nick, who ranked these best. "It's like dusting your chips in a vat of Heinz. Sweet and tangy. This is the only one worth keeping." Grace, though, a self-proclaimed condiment queen, was not a fan. "Again with the barbecue flavor. I'm not into it. Ketchup (does not equal) BBQ."
6. President's Choice
"Most ketchupy. Rich tomato flavor. My favorite," wrote Stephanie Sokol, Tribune print production specialist, who ranked these best. "Tastes like what I'd put on fries!"
5. Neal Brothers
"Full of folded chips!" I wrote about these, and ranked them as best. Potato-chip connoisseurs know folded chips are the most coveted because they're super crackly. "Nailed the Huy Fong Sriracha flavor too." Joe also ranked them best, noting however, "But no tomato." Nick ranked these high too, but he suspected I'd thrown in a ringer. "Looks like an all-American barbecue chip. Extra crunchy and shockingly spicy. What the hell is going on? Is this a joke?"
4. Covered Bridge
"The ketchup flavor is a little more subtle here. Since I prefer kettle chips, I also kind of prefer this texture," wrote Natalie, who ranked these best, with a caveat. "It's much crunchier, but tasted a little burnt." Sade ranked them low. "My first bite was like biting into a fried-green tomato, and I don't know how to feel about that. Least favorite so far."
3. Old Dutch
"Neon red, almost radioactive red," wrote Nick who ranked these high. "These attack your taste buds with sweet ketchup flavor." Wrote Joe, who ranked them high, "Eats more like a vinegar chip than a ketchup chip." He noted the prominent vinegar flavor, with tomato in the background.
2. Great Value
"Good balanced flavor, sweet, but not overly," wrote Tony, who ranked these high. "Hints of maple syrup? It is Canada after all." Natalie, though, ranked them low. "I know ketchup has a lot of sugar, but these are too sweet. They're also somehow simultaneously too bland? The texture wasn't as crunchy as I would like either."
The winner of our ketchup chip taste test? The limited-edition Doritos ketchup tortilla chips! "I wish American Doritos had this much seasoning, but of a different flavor," wrote Sade, who ranked these best. "Tangy and a little sweet, is this the defining trait of Canadian ketchup chips?" Grace also ranked them best. "Sour and sweet, not very ketchupy, but I really like the corn pairing with it!" Nick, a tortilla authority, felt otherwise. "Ketchup flavor on a tortilla chip! Like a Doritos chip with no spine. What a wimp."