How a Mexican snack became an American staple

Story highlights

  • Tortillas outsell hamburger and hot dog buns
  • Tortilla chips are increasing in sales faster than tortilla chips
  • As the Latino population grows, so will the variety of foods that cater to them

CNN is serving up some of our best food pieces. This article, originally published in 2014, details the history of the tortilla chip. Enjoy!

(CNN)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.
    Tortillas -- not the chips but the round flat breads used to wrap burritos - have been outselling hamburger and hot dog buns at supermarkets and retail food stores since 2010.
    And salsa has been the new ketchup since 2008, according Jim Kabbani, CEO of the Tortilla Industry Association.
    One of the factors that contributes to that growth is immigration. As the Latino population grows, so will the variety of foods that cater to them. Especially since the Mexican-American population makes up the largest Hispanic group in the United States.
    Another factor that plays into the growth is that non-Hispanics have become more adventurous eaters, and companies want to cater to that, Kabbani said.
    While Mexican food in the United States has become ubiquitously American as apple pie, the backstory of how the crispy golden corn chip became the go-to snack chip hasn't really been told.
    In an effort to tell that story, nationally syndicated columnist of ¡Ask a Mexican! Gustavo Arellano wrote the book "Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America."
    In the early 1900s, tortilla chips were already being manufactured and distributed to local restaurants in southern California but were never really a big deal. In fact, their creation was even an afterthought.
    These tostadas, as they are called in Mexico, were made from leftover tortilla dough. Go figure.
    It wasn't long before Frito-Lay executives noticed how everyone in those southern California restaurants was gobbling up tostadas, so they decided to make the chips, too. They called their product "Doritos," Spanish for "little golden things."
    Although few consider Doritos a tortilla chip, under all that cheesy seasoning is an oppressed golden tortilla chip - the first to be launched nationally in the United States.
    Shortly thereafter, tortilla chips made by other companies started to gain popularity - mostly driven by the rise of salsa, refried beans, and guacamole. But when nachos made their debut, it took tortillas chips to the next level.
    Side note: Nachos were a delicious accident. When two American customers walked into his restaurant in Mexico, head waiter Ignacio "Nacho" Ayala couldn't find the chef so he threw together some random ingredients and called them "Nacho's Special," Arellano said.
    And the rest is history.
    Today, every NFL stadium and Major League Baseball offers nachos. They're the third-largest concession seller overall, after popcorn and soda, outselling even hot dogs, Arellano notes.
    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.