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How a Mexican snack became an American staple

How a Mexican snack became an American staple

Posted by Shanelle Weir on January 22, 2015

As a non-sports aficionado, my attraction to game day festivities has been solely food focused. So naturally, I noticed how potato chips have taken less and less space on the snack table to make room for tortilla chips and guacamole.

Although potato chips continue to be the top-selling salted snack in terms of pounds sold, tortilla chips have been increasing in sales at a faster pace than potato chips, especially during this time of year, according to Tom Dempsey, CEO of the Snack Food Association.

And, it's not just tortilla chips selling at such high rates either.

The rapid rise of nachos and guacamole persuaded Frito-Lay to make their own light, airy, slightly unseasoned tortilla chips. The American company named them "Tostitos" and marketed them as "authentic."

Frito-Lay then hired Mexican-born, U.S.- raised actor Fernando Escandon - who had a slight Spanish accent - to do a series of commercials and it worked. It didn't hurt that Escandon also owned two Mexican restaurants either.

"Tostitos remains the biggest brand ... and it all started in the mid-1970s as a way to offer a more authentic alternative than Doritos," Arellano told CNN. "Through clever marketing, they took over the tortilla chip business."

Doritos still continue to be the best-selling tortilla chips and Tostitos and Tostitos Scoops follow - all under the Frito-Lay empire.

Who invented the tortilla chip?

The origin of the tortilla chip gets a bit complicated because like every tale in history, there are two sides to every story.

While many have credited Rebecca Webb Carranza as the inventor and innovator of the tortilla chip, the Tamalina Milling Company claims its family's tortilla company made the famous corn chips long before that, Arellano wrote in Taco USA.

Jose Bartolome Martinez, owner of the Tamalina Milling Company, claims he was the first to produce masolina to make tortillas, where you would only have to add water and masa emerged. All that production meant excess masa so Martinez decided to make tortilla chips as to not be wasteful.

The Martinez family only recently donated materials to trademark the Tamalina brand of tortilla chip.

While the tortilla chip's history is still a bit blurry, Frito-Lay's heavy marketing and branding has been so influential that many people refer to tortilla chips as "Tostitos," even if they aren't buying the Frito-Lay brand.

Potato chips keep things interesting

Not only does Frito-Lay have the corner on the tortilla chip market, but it owns the leading potato chip brands: Fritos, Baked!, Ruffles and, their most popular brand, Lay's.

And they aren't taking the rise of the tortilla chip lightly.

"Potato chip companies have become creative in their advertising, even going as far as changing the shape of their chips to triangles or mixing ingredients to make a hybrid chip," Kabbani said.

In 2014, consumers could even name their flavor as part of Lay's "Do Us a Flavor" contest, which got a lot of bizarre entries.

Kettle Brand is one of the few companies that isn't owned by Frito-Lay, and even though potato chip sales fell below tortilla chips recently, the company has focused its energy on two vital chip components: structure and flavor.

"The thick-cut and crunch of our chips also means they stand up really well against popular dips that have a tendency to make other chips crumble," Kettle Brand's brand manager Marc McCullagh told CNN.

Kettle Brand has also built up a reputation for bold flavors - Maple Bacon, Sweet & Salty, Sriracha and Sweet Chili Garlic - and McCullagh said they'll keep doing that to keep up with the competition.

While they're known for their kettle-style potato chips, Kettle Brand also sells tortilla chips, which they market as the "healthier alternative."

"Unlike other plain tortilla chips brands, we focus on all-natural, organic and carry non-GMO ingredients," McCullagh said.

After all, who wouldn't want to get a piece of the tortilla chip's multibillion-dollar industry that is exponentially expanding year after year?

To each their own, I say.

Granted, I'm not complaining. I love tortillas chips and potato chips, in every shape, size and flavor. But I'm keeping an eye on the snack table in case these tostadas make a full-blown culinary takeover during game day.

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