They leave your fingers as red as our maple leaf flag.
Cover art by: Megan Hunt, an Inuk artist and animator based in Iqaluit, Nunavut. Find more of her work on Instagram: @mutecutes
Just like their sweet and sour flavour powder’s propensity for staining fingertips, the precise origin of ketchup chips is a little messy.
Despite two brands being popularly considered the inventor of ketchup chips – one American and one Canadian – yet neither are able to officially prove it, these crunchy and tangy red potato chips are indisputably an example of edible Canadiana. In fact, even just finding ketchup chips outside of Canada has been a difficult feat over the decades until recent years.
On the northern side of the border, our much-loved ketchup chip flavour was originally a 70s experiment that happened to stick around during the same era as other, more wackier, novel chip flavours came to be but almost immediately flopped. This era of Hostess brand ketchup chips were sold in silver bags for 40 cents each. While most of those other flavour experiments failed to win over our discerning palates, ketchup chips have stood the test of time – at least in Canada. They have become one of the best-selling flavours in our grocery stores and often poll as one of our nation’s favourite snacks.
Still, as popular as they are to Canadians over the decades and despite short-lived experiments from American brands, ketchup chips have not caught on in quite the same way south of our borders.
For instance, an American company, Herrs, has been making ketchup chips since the 80s and even partnered with Heinz to create its own version. Many believe Herrs invented ketchup chips – even though their product dates back to the 80s. But even if they did invent the chip flavour, ketchup chips are simply not as popular in the US as it has been in the Canadian market for almost 50 years.
Hostess, now owned by Frito-Lay Canada and Pepsi Co., first created the flavour in the 70s. It is unclear where Hostess got its original inspiration from or even who specifically at the chip factory came up with the great idea of combining the french fry and condiment duo into a potato chip flavour. As Hostess was acquired by Frito-Lay in 1996, fine details about Hostess’ earlier history is not something easy to pinpoint. However, vintage advertisements and packaging help to provide a clearer picture on its timeline.
The Hostess chips brand was founded in a Waterloo County, Ontario kitchen in 1935 by Edward Snyder. It was a relatively small business until junk food reached new heights in the 50s, around the same time the company was sold to General Foods. The new Hostess owner helped the brand grow to the largest chip company in Canada during the mid-century years, squishing out competitors due to its strong distribution channels until about the 80s. It had the slogan: “‘Cause when you’ve got the munchies, nothing else will do!” Shortly after the ketchup chip flavour was created in the 70s, the company made the mistake of creating fruit flavoured chips – cherry, orange and grape. The fruity line was, as you can imagine, not very well-received.
Within months, the products were discontinued. The company later tried to make up for this error by including World Wrestling Federation, baseball and rock band stickers and Star Trek trading cards inside their chip bags.
But even that wouldn’t stop the brand from slowly losing its position as the top-selling chip brand in Canada.
By the 90s, kettle-cooked chip brands in matte packaging and marketing focused on more natural-seeming processes overtook Hostess. Frito-Lay Canada, owned by Pepsi Co., then took over the brand and they all but disappeared since then. There was a limited edition 2007 version of the retro Hostess chip line. Even just a few years ago, you could occasionally find Hostess brand chip bags with Lays chips inside. Nowadays, the only remaining Hostess brand product appears to be the hickory sticks.
Even though those Hostess chip bags and their ‘Munchies monsters’ characters are long gone from store shelves, the history of the Hostess chip has left a lasting impact on Canadians. Not only did they inspire generations of later chip manufacturers to dip their chips in ketchup flavour, they also defined colour-coded chip marketing for years. The Hostess chip branding influenced other chip brands and helped customers associate certain flavours with packaging colour. The blue striped packaging represented regular, red was barbecue and yellow was salt and vinegar. Other brands adopted those colours for quick recognition on the grocery store shelves.
Even beyond chip flavour colours and opening the doors to new condiment flavoured possibilities, Canadians were also influenced by Hostess ketchup chips in more sentimental and nostalgic ways. Many of us grew up with Munchies monster stuffed animals and the popular Hostess WWF stickers found in chip bags and stuck to household appliances.
In an effort to find the best ketchup chips and rank them, we tasted six popular brands selling at Canadian grocery stores. We evaluated each brand on a scale of five in four categories: aesthetics, over-all texture, flavour and finger feel. After many red-stained fingers the winners were pronounced – Maritimes favourite chip brand Covered Bridge and of course the iconic Lays ketchup chip.
Covered Bridge ketchup chips
These New Brunswick-based ketchup chips have a hard crunch and feel more like homemade crackers than the other chips. Covered Bridge chip texture has somewhat of a home-made baked vibe. These ones seem somewhat overcooked but that gives it a little rustic humility. They are both not too salty and not too sweet. They have a very minimal finger powder after snacking.
Finger feel: 4/5
Total score: 17/20
Compliments ketchup chips
These ketchup chips are thinner and more bite-able than Covered Bridge. If you prefer less crunch for your chips, you might like these more than Covered Bridge. The flavour has a more pronounced contrast, with a higher degree of both sweetness and tang. They leave more powder residue on the fingers than Covered Bridge but less than some of the others we tested.
Finger feel: 3.5/5
Total score: 14/20
Old Dutch, baked ketchup chips
These ones have a hard crunch too, but in a flatter way, and no oily vibes. They are much higher in the sweet and tangy contrast than Compliments’ ketchup version. Like other baked chip brands, these are aesthetically unappealing as they are shaped like flattened blobs of potato flakes with wiggly perimeters but do have a good colour and textural integrity despite their otherwise artificial vibe. They have a potato flake after taste, much like other baked chips – this is likely due to the dehydrated potatoes listed in the ingredients. They appear cleaner, whiter, more consistent aesthetically but the chip’s inherent flavour affects the ketchup flavouring. Not much powder sticks to the fingers.
Finger feel: 4.5/5
Total score: 14.5/20
Lays ketchup chips
These ketchup chips now replace the original Hostess ones that won over Canadian hearts and bellies over the decades. Compared to the other brands sampled, they are somewhat texturally flimsier, with more air per bite than some of the thicker or sturdier chips like Covered Bridge or the baked Old Dutch version. This makes chewing easier and perhaps more pleasant. Some parts of the chips are nearly translucent from their thinness. Lays ketchup chips are tangier and sweeter than the others, and to most millenial Canadians these are the quintessential ketchup chips with a flavour that is hard to beat and a more purpley ketchup flavour powder than the others. A nostalgia factor certainly weighs in.
Finger feel: 4/5
Total score: 17/20