For several years now, this leaf has been hailed as the healthiest salad green around.

Whether that’s true or not, we will answer in a moment.

Regardless, perhaps that perception is a good thing, as it’s finally getting folks to eat their Brassica vegetables once again.

More commonly known as cruciferous, this genus of plants also includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, cabbage, and cauliflower. Unfortunately, most of these are still snubbed by the populous, but at least the flavor and crunch of kale is appeasing palates.

Antioxidants? Not impressive

fresh whole lacinato kale leavesHow much antioxidants there are in kale is good, but not great.

ORAC is a measure of a food’s total antioxidant activity – the higher the number, the more activity there is. Here’s how it compares to similar plants you may use in its place:

  • Iceberg lettuce = 438
  • Romaine lettuce = 1,017
  • Butter lettuce = 1,423
  • Spinach = 1,513
  • Green leaf lettuce = 1,532
  • Curly green kale = 1,770
  • Cooked dinosaur/Tuscan/black/lacinato kale = 1,773
  • Red leaf lettuce = 2,426

It’s not even the highest. Red leaf gets no respect.

Yes, it is more than other common salad ingredients, but not substantially. The three behind it are only about 15% lower, yet no one thinks of green leaf or butter lettuce as a superfood.

Nutritional benefits are exaggerated, too

For just 49 calories, a 3.5 ounce (100g) serving of fresh kale packs 4 grams of protein and nearly 200% of your daily value for both vitamins A and C (1).

As far as minerals, 14% of your DV for potassium, 15% for calcium, 8% for iron, and 11% for magnesium.

bowl of fresh spinachHowever for 3 of those 4 minerals – potassium, iron, and magnesium – spinach is actually higher (2). Only for calcium does it trail behind.

Spinach is equal for vitamin A, but when it comes to how much vitamin C there is, it’s no comparison. Kale has 300% more C per ounce!

But don’t rejoice yet…

Most store bought kale chips are baked and won’t be as healthy. Why? Because vitamin C is easily destroyed by heat. As a result, any baking or frying will diminish this important nutrient.

Why do they bake them? Probably to increase production time and maximize shelf life. Raw homemade kale chips with a dehumidifier take forever to make. Since no or very little heat is involved, the drying process may take two full days, sometimes longer if you’re using a cheap food dehumidifier.

Not exactly the speed that food manufacturers want in their assembly line.

Now when you’re paying $5 or $6 for one little tiny bag, you better be getting every milligram of nutrient possible, right?

Well, here’s how much vitamin C remains in one of the most popular brands…

Kale Chips Nutrition Facts

(Rhythm Superfoods Kool Ranch Flavor)

Serving Size: 1 oz
Servings Per Container: 2
Amount Per Serving
Calories 140
Calories From Fat 70
% Daily Value* % Daily Value
Total Fat 7g 11% Vitamin A 55%
Saturated Fat 0.5g 3% Vitamin C 9%
Trans Fat 0g Calcium 8%
Sodium 220mg 9% Iron 8%
Total Carbs. 13g 4% Vitamin K 300%
Dietary Fiber 4g 14%
Sugars 3g
Protein 6g
*Percent Daily Values (DV) are based on a 2,000 calorie diet

How much vitamin K there is in kale chips will be high, since that’s not destroyed by the heat of cooking. 600% of the daily value (300% per serving) is the amount of vitamin K in their spicy Zesty Nacho and Mango Habanero flavors, too.

cost of Alive and Radiant Kale Krunch chips at grocery storeOn the flip side, how much vitamin C there is not impressive… just 11% of the daily value for that same flavor. 22% if you eat the whole bag.

Getting a quarter of your RDI from one snack normally would deserve applause, but how much is a bag of kale chips?

You might pay $4, but more likely, $5 or $6 and change.

That’s if you’re buying the “cheap” brands like Rhythm Superfoods or Alive and Radiant. Whether it’s the Kool Ranch or vegan cheese, they all taste good but they’re not cheap.

Even Trader Joe’s zesty nacho kale chips will cost you $3.99 and they’re not organic. Our review of TJ’s taste is a 7 out of 10, but not for nutrition. Their pitfall is the same one that makes Rhythm not good for you.

Rhythm is organic. While they proudly display the non GMO project verified seal and USDA organic circle, here’s something else we think they should make better known:

One little bag has almost 30% of the maximum daily salt intake per day as recommended by the American Heart Association!

Technically there are 2 servings in the bag, but we all know you devour that in one sitting. So it’s really one serving.

One bag of the Kool Ranch has 440 mg of sodium, which is 29% of the 1,500 mg recommended by the AHA (3).

nutrition facts for McDonald's fries

If you eat the whole bag, you’re consuming more salt than what’s in a large order of McDonald’s fries. 290 mg versus 440 in the Kool Ranch. Their other varieties are only slightly lower and still have more than McD’s.

We reviewed other manufacturers for all their flavors including spicy, jalapeno, tahini, pizza, garlic, salt and vinegar, Bombay ranch, Parmesan, and other cheddar cheesy-like concoctions – both real cheese and plant-based. For a reduced sodium diet, most brands and flavors fail.

How to make them actually healthy

Do kale chips taste good when they’re plain? Yes, even without added salt or minimal amounts, they still taste delicious and satisfy your craving for a crunchy and seemingly naughty snack.

That’s all the more reason why Rhythm and other manufacturers should stop adding so much salt to their products. We don’t think it’s too much to ask for a readily available no salt or low sodium kale chip.

These fibrous leaves are still nutritious for you in many ways, but for most vitamins and minerals, the difference is not leaps and bounds. Especially after they are baked, which is not healthy for another reason too (you will hear that below).

When it comes to the basic nutrition facts, the best things these chips of kale have going for them is how much fiber they have (around 30% of your DV per 2 ounce bag), their vitamin K amount (up to 300%) and their protein content (up to 12 grams).

Then again, you can buy a protein bar with the same protein and fiber for a quarter of the cost.

This crunchy cruciferous snack needs to have something else to make it worth your while.

Guess what? It actually might…

Biggest benefit might involve cancer

Antiproliferative is the word used for any substance which tends to slow down or prevent the growth of cancer cells.

Now to be clear, cancer is a very complex disease. Obviously there’s no cure for any type, but there are foods which contain compounds that have been shown to inhibit tumor growth by at least some degree. Some of these are only Petri dish observations, so it’s unknown if the same happens in the human body.

Others are based on statistics – i.e. people who eat certain foods and what their rate of getting the disease is. Pure coincidence could be an explanation, but sometimes the odds of that seem far too unlikely.

Researchers at the University of Quebec pitted dozens of common vegetables against one another to find out which ones might have the most potential (4). Cruciferous vegetables ranked among the best.

antiproliferative activity of cruciferous vegetables

The chart you see above was for a type of lung cancer cells which were cultured in the laboratory.

In addition to lung, the scientists also tested the following cell cultures:

  • stomach cancer
  • pancreatic cancer
  • breast cancer
  • prostate cancer
  • kidney cancer
  • glioblastoma (brain)
  • medulloblastoma (brain)

Based on all 8 tests, here’s how they summed up their findings…

Inhibitory effect on cultured cancer cells
Little Intermediate High Very High
Acorn squash Celery Asparagus Brussels sprouts
Bok choy Eggplant Beetroot Cabbage
Boston lettuce Broccoli Curly cabbage
Carrot Cauliflower Garlic
Endive Fiddlehead Green onion
English cucumber Green bean Kale
Fennel bulb Radish Leek
Jalapeno Red cabbage Spinach
Orange sweet pepper Rutabaga
Potato Yellow onion
Radicchio
Romaine lettuce
Tomato

So why did the cruciferous veggies like raw kale and cabbage seem to perform so much better than the lettuces? Here is what the researchers theorized:

“We observed that cruciferous vegetables had potent inhibitory activities against most cancer cell lines. This inhibitory effect is most likely related to the content of these vegetables in glucosinolates (Fenwick, Heaney, & Mullin, 1983) since upon mechanical disruption of the vegetables, glucosinolates are rapidly converted to isothiocyanates, a highly reactive class of phytochemicals that potently inhibit several key events involved tumour cell growth (Keum, Jeong, & Kong, 2004; Thornalley, 2002).”

Okay so *if* glucosinolates have some sort of inhibitory effect, then what happens to the glucosinolate content after it has been exposed to heat?

The answer is not what you want to hear.

According to a document published on the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) website about glucosinolates, what happens to it upon microwave cooking is at least partial destruction (5).

At the National Institute of Animal Science out of Denmark, they tested rapeseed meal – which is another natural source – to study how much glucosinolates were left after toasting (6). Here were the results…

Temperature Time Cooked Decrease In Glucosinolates
100°C (212ºF) 15 min 24%
100°C (212ºF) 30 min 46%
100°C (212ºF) 60 min 70%
100°C (212ºF) 120 min 95%

Even at a low temperature barely above 200 degrees, 95% of it is gone after 2 hours. Worse yet, at that low of a temperature, it’s likely an even longer cooking time would be necessary to fully dry out a plant like kale and make it into a shelf-stable chip.

We’re not aware of any published data specifically for kale, but just like how vitamin C degrades regardless of which fruit of vegetable it’s in, the same would be expected with those heat-sensitive glucosinolates.

Verdict

lab experiment using well plateFor starters, it’s important to remember that while the anti-cancer activity has been seen in laboratory research, it’s totally unknown if the same occurs in the human body.

For that reason, we have to remind you of the following:

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

So let’s move on from the cancer topic.

Are store bought kale chips healthy? Let’s add up the drawbacks…

Where to buy kale chips?

Whole Foods, Sprouts, and just about any half-way decent grocery store sells them nowadays. You can even find them for sale at some Walmart locations.

But even if you bought them in bulk from Walmart, the cost is still expensive – $60.56 for a 12 pack is what we saw on their website, as of the time of this review. That price averages out to $5.05 per bag for the Rhythm Zesty Nacho.

These can be very expensive snacks relative to how little food there is in the bag.

Nutritious?

  • One bag might contain more sodium than an order of McDonald’s fries.
  • Only a fraction of the vitamin C is in there when compared to fresh kale.
  • It’s likely other heat-sensitive phytonutrients have been greatly diminished, too.

We don’t mean to beat up Rhythm too hard though. The only reason we’re singling them out is because seem to be the most popular, bestselling brand at the moment. Based on the nutrition facts, almost every manufacturer bakes them and adds tons of salt.

Overall, kale chips are not as bad for you as potato chips. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking they’re a substitute for a salad or heart-healthy superfood, given the high sodium and heat processing which is typically involved.

Nut allergies

cashew nuts, close-up photoCashews have always been a cheap nut. Between that and the California drought driving up the cost of almonds, many of these manufacturers exclusively use cashews for their vegan cheese nut recipes.

If you have a cashew allergy (like one of us here does) your options will be even more limited. Likewise for sesame allergies, as the ingredients of almost every major brand on the market contains one or both of those allergens.

We wish manufacturers would use different nuts for different flavors, so there would be at least be one option available for people with a specific nut allergy.

Added oils

pouring cooking oil into frying panOh and we didn’t even mention the added oils used.

Finding a ready-to-eat healthy kale chips recipe with no oil or added fat is an impossible task at many grocery stores. Even here in the Los Angeles area, where palates are pickier and the supermarkets try to accommodate that.

Rhythm is an oil-free chip, but they add tahini and sunflower seeds even to their plain, which is called “original” flavor. Those added fats may not be desired for weight loss, or if you’re striving for a low fat diet for other reasons.

It’s too bad that low fat chips which are seasoned with just garlic, cayenne, and other spices aren’t more readily available.

Glycotoxins

Even if you’re skinny as a toothpick, you may not want any seeds and nuts.

Why? Because when they’re roasted, they often have high amounts of acrylamide and other glycotoxins (suspected carcinogens).

Other potent sources of these compounds include meats and carbs, depending on how they are cooked. Roasting, grilled, and frying tend to create a lot. Boiling and low temperature baking is much better.

To see measurements of how much glycotoxins there are in roasted sunflower seeds, cashews, and other nuts, we report actual numbers in our review of the best protein bars (hint: the winners use raw nuts).

Best kale chips brand to buy

Brad's Nasty Hot chipsThe reason we chose this one is because it’s available for sale online and at least some stores nationwide carry it.

We’re talking about Brad’s Plant-Based.

They call their process “air crisped” which actually sounds dubious, like it might be a gimmicky name for baking.

However, if you read the product, they explain “air crisped” means it’s been dehydrated at or below 115ºF to better preserve vitamins and other phytonutrients.

They will please almost everyone since they’re vegan, non-GMO, USDA certified organic, certified gluten free, and soy free.

The health benefits of less sodium and more vitamin C make Brad’s a clear winner.

We like to buy the the Nasty Hot vegan cheese on Amazon. For something more toned down, the Naked flavor is a great choice, too.

There are a handful of others we like too, but they’re only regionally or locally sold like Solar and Good ‘n Raw. For DIY, Nouveau has tasty recipes if you skip the salt. Really, any raw kale chips will be a better option versus the baked, fried, and roasted varieties which unfortunately are the most prevalent at the stores today.