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Cheap Tortilla Chips Taste Test 2016

Unlike some other foods, tortilla chips seem to deliver rich rewards to frugal consumers. The current zeitgeist considers high-end, restaurant-style tortilla chips to be the best.

But both our own taste tests and online reviews indicate that pricier specialty chips often crumble against the competition. When planning a shindig for family or friends, there's no reason to overspend on the snack portion of the menu.

The tortilla chips in this year's blind taste test were divided into two categories -- yellow or white corn and blue corn -- to account for the obvious difference in appearance, as well as taste and texture. The selection of 13 products included five organic or "natural" varieties. There was little difference in price between the organic and conventional chips in our sample, with most clustering in the range of 17 to 20 cents an ounce, and the products were sampled side by side. The contenders included national brands such as Mission and Tostitos and store brands such as Costco's Kirkland Signature, Safeway's O Organics, and Whole Foods' 365 Everyday Value, some of which offer multiple varieties. Pacific Northwest favorite Juanita's was also included, although it's not as widely available.

We presented the samples to an eight-person panel in unmarked paper bowls, each labeled with a different reference letter, to keep testers in the dark about which brands they were eating. We asked each participant to rate the samples based on appearance, texture, and taste.

Our panelists easily named a clear favorite among the tortilla chips arrayed before them. Trader Joe's Organic Blue Corn Tortilla Chips ($3.29 for a 16-ounce bag) ranked so far ahead of the rest that they claimed the title of best cheap tortilla chips overall. This seems like something of a coup, given the broader appeal of traditional white and yellow corn varieties. Points in the blue corn chips' favor include good, subtle corn flavor, the "right amount of salt," and a "light," "crispy" texture. Every one of the tasters enjoyed this product -- a distinction no other chip could claim.

On the yellow and white corn side, On the Border Café-Style Yellow Corn Tortilla Chips ($2.98 for an 18-ounce bag) emerged as the best. They earned solid praise for being tasty and well-balanced in salt and texture, although some tasters detected an oily aftertaste that read as stale or "artificial." Santitas White Corn Tortilla Chips ($2 for an 11-ounce bag) -- a favorite in a previous Cheapism taste test -- technically tied the On the Border chips for taste and overall appeal. More limited availability and a higher per-ounce price knocked them down to the good category.

Two other solid contenders round out the top picks. Safeway's O Organics Blue Corn Tortilla Chips With Flax Seed ($2.49 for a 10-ounce bag) represent a new take on an old favorite that appealed to most panelists. While this brand didn't have the overwhelming support of Trader Joe's blue chips, it certainly scored on par with the next runner-up, Kirkland Signature Tortilla Strips ($3.59 for a 48-ounce bag). These perennial favorites (produced for Costco by Mission) set the price floor at less than 7.5 cents an ounce and fell just shy of the top rank for white and yellow corn chips.

Review continues below

In general, the cheap chips that didn't make the grade were docked points for being bland or overly dense. Two varieties fared worse than the rest. Whole Foods' 365 Everyday Value White Corn Restaurant-Style Tortilla Chips ($2.99 for a 16-ounce bag) offended the taste buds of our entire panel with their "dry," "plain" flavor profile and a "cardboard" texture that "stays in your mouth." Trader Joe's Organic White Corn Tortilla Chips ($2.69 for a 16-ounce bag) were similarly panned for tasting "stale," "unseasoned," and "unappealing." It's clear that buying an organic or restaurant-style product from a specialty supermarket doesn't always translate to satisfying taste.

A slew of other chips didn't make a strong impression on tasters one way or another. Among the yellow and white corn chips, the "average Josés" included Mission White Corn Tortilla Triangles ($3.19 for a 13-ounce bag), Simply Tostitos Yellow Corn Tortilla Chips ($3.19 for a 9-ounce bag), Juanita's White Corn Tortilla Chips ($2.29 for a 15-ounce bag), and Trader Joe's Restaurant-Style White Corn Chips ($1.79 for an 8.5-ounce bag). In the blue corn category, both Simply Tostitos and Whole Foods' 365 Everyday Value brand tortilla chips ($2.99 for a 16-ounce bag) failed to make a mark.

The Simply Tostitos chips, both yellow and blue corn, registered the highest per-ounce cost, at 35 cents -- clearly out of the Cheapism zone. Despite several online raves about these "natural" alternatives to traditional Tostitos, the chips turned in so-so performances in our taste test. Panelists said they would rather spend their money on tastier, more affordable tortilla chips.

Product
Price
Ounces
Per Bag
Price
Per Ounce
Yellow/White Corn Tortilla Chips
Kirkland Signature Tortilla Strips (Costco) $3.59 48 7 cents
Juanita's White Corn Tortilla Chips $2.29 15 15 cents
Trader Joe's Organic White Corn $2.69 16 17 cents
On the Border Café-Style Yellow Corn $2.98 18 17 cents
Santitas White Corn $2.00 11 18 cents
365 Everyday Value White Corn Restaurant-Style (Whole Foods) $2.99 16 19 cents
Trader Joe's Restaurant-Style White Corn $1.79 8.5 21 cents
Mission White Corn Tortilla Triangles $3.19 13 25 cents
Simply Tostitos Yellow Corn $3.19 9 35 cents
Blue Corn Tortilla Chips
365 Everyday Value Blue Corn (Whole Foods) $2.99 16 19 cents
Trader Joe's Organic Blue Corn $3.29 16 21 cents
O Organics Organic Blue Corn With Flax Seed (Safeway) $2.49 10 25 cents
Simply Tostitos Blue Corn $3.19 9 35 cents

White and Yellow Corn Tortilla Chips.

There are more similarities than differences between the flavors that white and yellow corn tortilla chips bring to the table. Both versions offer light cornmeal taste and similar texture. For that reason, we tested them together to choose a winner.

The best chips in this category, On the Border Yellow Corn, and the other top-ranked selection, Santitas White Corn, benefitted from being fried in oil. The process imbues the chips with crispness and intensified corn flavor, and these brands were saltier to boot. The oil did turn off some tasters, giving the chips a "strange aftertaste" described as reminiscent of "old funnel cake," but overall the frying produced tastier chips that panelists were more likely to nibble.

The Santitas chips and Kirkland Signature Tortilla Strips were the top finishers in Cheapism's previous taste test, in 2013 (the On the Border chips were not in the running). Another chip recommended as a good pick, Calidad White Corn ($1.99 for a 12-ounce bag), was not included in this year's sample because of concerns that the brand is too difficult to come by in some regions. Despite what several testers described as a somewhat "bland" taste, the Calidad chips tallied votes from those who appreciated an unassuming and inoffensive chip with a "light crunch." At such a low cost, they're certainly worth a shot for consumers who spot them. Some Walmart and Sam's Club stores and other grocery outlets carry Calidad tortilla chips.

Overall, this year's tasting crew liked the yellow and white corn chips well enough for dipping, but their subtle, sweet flavors were pegged "bland" more frequently than the blue chips we served. This was especially the case with the three natural or organic products.

Simply Tostitos passed muster, falling into the middle of the pack with "good flavor and texture" that satisfied but didn't impress, especially given the high price. Trader Joe's Organic White Corn Tortilla Chips and Whole Foods' 365 Everyday Value White Corn Restaurant-Style Tortilla Chips faltered, however, plummeting to the bottom of the list. Tasters complained these chips "tasted stale" and had "no salt" to tempt their palates. Both brands also suffered from being "too thick" -- a common objection to natural and organic offerings.

Blue Corn Tortilla Chips.

Tasting panelists noshed on four different blue corn chips in this year's blind test: Trader Joe's Organic Blue Corn Tortilla Chips, Simply Tostitos Blue Corn Tortilla Chips, 365 Everyday Value Blue Corn Tortilla Chips from Whole Foods, and Safeway's O Organics Blue Corn Tortilla Chips With Flax Seed.

In our previous tasting session, the products named the best tortilla chips were made from white corn. The Safeway chips and Kroger's Simple Truth Natural Blue Corn Tortilla Chips ($2.89 for a 9-ounce bag) left a slightly sweet aftertaste that not everyone appreciated. This time, feedback was more favorable for the blue corn selections. Not only did they receive higher scores than most of the white and yellow corn chips (the lowest-ranking blue chips still rated better than five of the nine yellow or white corn chips), but the landslide favorite was from the blue corn category.

Trader Joe's Organic Blue Corn Tortilla Chips impressed the panelists with a harmonious balance of texture, flavor, salt, and crunch. Taste-testers gushed about the "airy," "flaky" crispness and the light corn sweetness of the chips. While one critic mentioned a "mealy" mouth feel, it wasn't enough to drive tasters away.

Even the addition of flaxseed to the O Organics chips didn't scare off our hungry critics, who liked their "malty" flavor, "cracker-like" density, and "polenta" notes. These chips received scores equal to those of the Kirkland Signature Tortilla Strips, and were deemed a good choice as a result. Consumers may have to pay a little more should they follow our tasters' lead in embracing the blue chip revolution, however. The lowest price was 19 cents an ounce, and the Trader Joe's organic blue chips cost a full 4 cents more per ounce than the organic yellow version. But taste buds and party guests might appreciate the upgrade.



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