WASHINGTON -- There was a time when potato chips were just potato chips, their greasy crunch leaving the snacker with an aftertaste of delicious guilt.
A new kind of chips aims at tackling the psyche rather than tickling the taste bud, promising to turn Americans into kinder, happier and gentler souls.
The secret? Herbs and plant extracts, like St. John's wort, gingko biloba and kava kava, added to the chips along with essences of edible flowers -- violet, chamomile, peppermint and passion flower -- to help combat depression, promote long life and improve memory.
"It's just one of those next steps in the evolution of snacks and food," said the chips' manufacturer, Robert Ehrlich. "There are definitely benefits from the product."
But not everyone is swallowing that claim. Some nutritionists have expressed concern that all the feel-good messages about the snacks are just advertising gimmicks to sell chips.
"These products encourage people to think chips are a health food when they're not," said Marion Nestle, chairwoman of the department of nutrition and food studies at New York University, referring to the herbal chips.
"They're just ridiculous," said Norman Rosenthal, clinical professor of psychiatry and author of "St. John's Wort: The Herbal Way to Feeling Good." "It would be like having a penicillin pie or an antibiotic apple strudel."
"If people are really feeling depressed or anxious they should not depend on a potato chip," Rosenthal added.
The FDA's chief of special nutritionals, Elizabeth Yetley, said Ehrlich does not have an obligation to discuss his products with the FDA. But it is his responsibility to make sure that food products are safe before he markets them.
Rosenthal said St. John's wort is an effective antidepressant if used properly. Otherwise, "it's nothing more than a party joke," he said.
Ehrlich said a 1 ounce bag contains an average of 150 milligrams of St. John's wort, well below the 900 milligram dose that Rosenthal said is usually recommended. That means snackers would have to consume six bags -- at a whopping 840 calories -- to achieve bliss, if they don't get sick first from eating too many chips.
Ehrlich argued that his chips are not supplements but snacks. He also said there is benefit from the herbs because they are not cooked. Rather, the off-white powdery herb is sprinkled on after the products are made, leaving a slightly bitter aftertaste.
"Even though there are critics, people love them," Ehrlich maintained.
Ehrlich began making his mood-enhancing snacks four years ago. A group of herbalists, Zen masters, a psychiatrist and young consumers help put the products together. At 99 cents for a 2 ounce bag, the chips are sold in supermarkets -- in the health food section -- in the United States and in some parts of Europe, Asia and South America.
His latest product, Personality Puffs, came out this month. Low fat Cardio Chips containing a blend of natural herbs to improve cardiovascular health, metabolic conditions, the immune system and aging will come out next month.
His other herbal products include St. John's Wort Tortilla Chips, to improve moods, Gingko Biloba Rings, to enhance memory, and Kava Corn Chips to promote relaxation.
Personality Puffs, which come in the shape of little people, are made up of a blend of flowers, St. John's Wort and gingko biloba.
But before impatiently ripping open the bag, snackers are asked to take a good look at the back of the package.
Unlike the other herbal products, Personality Puffs come with a set of printed rules that will "open you to the magic that is ready to happen in your life."
Snackers are asked to buy at least two bags and give one away to a stranger within one hour of purchase. That, Ehrlich said, will create goodwill and kindness.
They are also asked to clear their mind and drop their worries, listen to what people say, cultivate relationships, smile and hold that smile for a solid five seconds.
"It seems a little weird now," admitted Ehrlich. "But it's going to catch on like crazy."