A meditation on potatoness
EC: What Are Pringles Made Of?
Credit: Photo by Bloomberg via getty image

For me, Pringles are an away food. I never ever buy them at home. I don’t keep them stocked in my pantry. I don’t ever get a Pringles craving while in my zip code. But put me in an airport, or alone in a hotel room with a stocked minibar? I go Pringles every time. I’m not really sure why I love Pringles while traveling. I suppose on an airplane, the tidy stack of curvy crisps are easy to eat, not likely to drop greasy crumbs all over myself, and are unobtrusive to seatmates. In a hotel room, there is something wonderfully indulgent about a mini can of sour cream and onion and a Fixer Upper marathon.

Pringles have always been their own thing, although I never thought they tasted of potato, I just thought they taste of Pringles. Sort of like trying to suss out the flavor of Swedish Fish. They don’t taste like fish, I can’t ascertain any particular red fruit they might represent, they just taste like, well, Swedish Fish.

But apparently Pringles are 42 percent potato, so while they might not taste specifically potatoey to me, they are technically a potato chip, right?

Not so fast.

Consumers' two prime complaints about potato chips back in the 1950s were greasiness and breakage. No one wanted oily fingers marking up their plastic sofa covers, and a bag full of little broken potato shards makes for a sad accompaniment to your pitcher of Tom Collinses. (See also: not ideal for eating on airplanes.) So Proctor and Gamble set out to make a potato chip that wouldn’t be so prone to breakage, and might be a bit easier on the upholstery. That required a chip that could be shipped in a sturdier container than the usual bag, and the scientists set out to make a formed potato chip that could be stacked in a protective canister.

After nearly a decade of hits and misses, the parabolic shape emerged, made by taking a dough of dehydrated potato along with potato, corn, and wheat flours, with some flavoring agents, oils and seasonings and rolling it paper-thin. Then they cut it into ovals and load them onto little perforated curved baskets before sending the basket through a fryer. Genius—stackable potato chips that resist breaking due to magic shape and fun canister packaging. By the late 1960s Pringles were on the shelves.

Just one problem: Can you call them a potato chip?

pringles spilling out of a can
Credit: Photo by Juan Monino via Getty Images

Competitors said nay, they do not meet the standard of proof to be a chip, since Pringles are not made from fresh potato and are only 42 percent potato content. After all, if you are making the greasy, breakable chips in bags, being actual potato chips is all you’ve got to argue. So the company decided to call them potato "crisps," getting the other chip people off their back.

That was fine here in the States, but in the UK there would be a whole crisp/chip kerfuffle. And not just because our British brethren call chips "crisps" on the daily, their chips being our fries and so on down the rabbit hole of our common language. Oh no. This was much bigger than semantics.

In 2009 there was a lawsuit over Pringles in the UK about whether or not they were by definition potato chips. And it wasn’t brought by competitors, but rather the British government. There’s a lot of British legal mumbo jumbo that I will spare you, but the upshot was this: If they are potato chips, then they were taxable for the Value Added Tax. (You know, the dreaded VAT we always think we will stand in line at the airports in Europe to get returned to us and never bother to follow through on.) Proctor and Gamble maintained that since they are only 42 percent potato, and are made from a dough-like product more in line with a cracker or biscuit, they would qualify as a savory snack and be exempt from the tax—which they had not bothered to pay for many years. Surely, said P&G, if the crisps are not made 100 percent of potato, they cannot qualify as a potato chip.

Lord Justice Jacob of the Supreme Court of Judicature said no and cited the famous legal premise that a combination orange and grapefruit marmalade is still marmalade even if it isn’t 100 percent made of either fruit.

“Procter & Gamble’s argument that to be taxable a product must contain enough potato to have the quality of potatoness. This 'Aristotelian question' of whether a product has the 'essence of potato,'" he insisted, “simply cannot be answered.” I love a Lord Justice who isn’t afraid to get into the potatoness of a thing.

The court ruled them a potato chip after all, and Proctor and Gamble had to pony up over 100 million pounds in back taxes, and an estimated 20 million a year moving forward. Ouch.

Potato chip or crisp, I still think they are the best thing to eat on an airplane.