Whether by itself, carrying a scoop of some delicious dip or serving as the foundation of a plate of nachos, Americans have had a love affair with tortilla chips since at least the 1940s.
We love tortilla chips so much we’ve even made a holiday to honor them, National Tortilla Chip Day, which is celebrated every year on Feb. 24.
Let’s take a dip in the waters of all things tortilla chip by learning more about the history of this versatile and crucial snack food.
Tortilla Chip History
It’s easy to assume tortilla chips have been around forever, and that’s probably true to an extent. But the truth is that the modern tortilla chip is a relatively recent invention that’s credited to a pair of Americans.
Jose Martinez: A Texas man who is believed by most to be the inventor of mass-produced masa, or corn dough.
Martinez had lots of surplus masa on his hands after making his tortillas and one day decided to toast the remnants into chips.
Most food scholars credit Martinez with the invention, though the details of his innovation have been lost to time (Taco USA).
Rebecca Webb Carranza: A Los Angeles woman who owned a Mexican restaurant and tortilla factory with her husband is most often credited with inventing mass production of tortilla chips.
In the 1940s, Carranza got the idea to fry and serve tortilla remnants to her family and later decided to bag and sell the chips to her customers.
The idea was so popular that the Carranzas’ company shifted to producing the chips full-time. Carranza was eventually honored for her contribution to Mexican food (Mental Floss).
The most common main ingredient of tortilla chips is yellow corn, but they also can be made from other types of corn, including:
Tortilla chips, while made from corn, are not classified as corn chips, which tend to have a crunchier consistency. Fritos are the most prominent example of corn chips, which differ from tortilla chips both in shape as well as the cooking process (Cook’s Illustrated).
Tortilla chips are made using nixtamalization, a process that mixes corn with an alkaline solution, usually limewater, which softens the corn and makes it easier to process into masa, or corn dough. The process dates as far back as the Aztec and Mayan civilizations.
While today’s versions are coated with a variety of flavors, Doritos began life in 1964 as plain tortilla chips (Huffington Post).
A flavor was added to the Dorito a few years after the product was first introduced. Only two flavors have remained consistent over the past few decades.
Main Doritos flavor introduction timeline
- 1967: Taco (not made today)
- 1972: Nacho cheese
- 1994: Cool ranch
Two other major fast-casual Mexican chains, Qdoba and Chipotle, came onto the scene in the 1990s (Business Insider).
Tortilla Chip Consumption
Not only are tortilla chips a party necessity, but in many homes, these snackable items have become dietary necessities. And we eat an incredible amount of these golden triangles every year.
Based on tortilla chip sales between May 2018 and May 2019 and the average number of chips in a bag, Americans consumed upwards of 206 billion tortilla chips during that 12-month period.
While tortilla chips are a common food for many people, they are crucial for snacking, and there’s no bigger snacking holiday than the Super Bowl. Sales of tortilla chips and other snacks start surging the week before the big game every year.
For the 2018 Super Bowl, Americans purchased enough bags of tortilla chips to stretch the width of the United States 2.5 times.
The British record for the largest tortilla chip is held by a 110-pound, 32-square-foot chip baked by six employees of Brewers Fayre.
Paqui produces the world’s spiciest tortilla chip, which comes as a single blue corn tortilla chip seasoned using the Carolina Reaper pepper, the world’s hottest chili pepper.
Tostitos set an unofficial world record during the 2019 Super Bowl by live-streaming a shot of a bowl of its Scoops chips for 53 straight hours (Media Post).
Tortilla Chip Industry Trends
The worldwide tortilla market, which includes tortilla chips, is expected to expand to more than $12 billion by 2028, and tortilla chips alone accounted for more than $5.5 billion in sales in 2019. Let’s look at the business of tortilla chips.
Tortilla chips aren’t perceived as being particularly unhealthy, but many of them are loaded with sodium and fat, and brands are experimenting with amping up the health factor.
More than 20% of savory tortilla chip brands have increased the amount of protein per serving.
Tortilla chips that claim to have natural ingredients have boosted sales by 4% in recent years.
Brands that offer new flavors are reaping rewards, with hot and spicy flavors growing 14% and cheese flavor growing 12%.
Three’s Company: Guac, Nachos & Salsa
Tortilla chips can be a satisfying experience on their own or with a party dip like a spinach-artichoke dip or queso. But there’s no doubt that plain tortilla chips go best with one (or more) of three dishes — guacamole, nachos and salsa.
Made from mashed avocados and any number of other ingredients (there’s no one standard recipe that qualifies), guacamole is a fan favorite that has its own national holiday.
Average annual search volume for guacamole has increased by 40% in the U.S. over the past decade (Google Trends).
Among fans of the green dip, 42% say they would give up Netflix or alcohol before they’d part with their precious guac (Groupon).
Tortilla chips aren’t just for dipping, and they serve as the foundation of a versatile and popular dish, nachos.
Nachos were invented by Ignacio Anaya, who used his own nickname to coin the moniker of the dish. Anaya served his nachos in 1943 to a group of women whose military husbands were stationed in Texas not far from the Mexican city of Piedras Negras (Time).
America’s most expensive plate of nachos is found at the Park Hyatt Hotel in New York City. They go for $210 and aren’t really nachos because they’re made with potato chips instead of tortilla chips.
Still, if you’re wealthy and craving nachos, caviar, chives and hard-boiled egg yolks, you could do worse.
People across the United States are interested in nachos, according to their Google results, but search volume for this addictive dish is highest in Nebraska.
Neither Mexico nor the U.S. can claim to be the global hotbed of nacho lovers. That distinction goes to Norway, which had the highest search volume for the term in the past year.
Made with some combination of red or green tomatoes, onions and jalapenos, and often beans, corn and even fruit, salsa has been America’s favorite condiment since the 1990s.
The term salsa was coined by Alonso de Molina in 1571 to describe a dish consisting of tomatoes, chili peppers and ground squash seeds.
A salsa made from Carolina Reaper peppers is said to be the hottest in the world.
Though they’re easy to overlook, tortilla chips have a long history in the U.S. and around the world, and it’s no wonder: Their versatility alone makes them a crucial staple, not only at a party but all year round.