Chances are, you probably haven’t given much thought to that can of Pringles other than wondering “how do I get the last few potato chips out of the tube without greasing up my arms?”
As it turns out, this salty snack has quite a story. It once was in the middle of a massive controversy that questioned the ingredients and whether the chips were actually potato chips at all.
From 2007 to 2009, the makers of the “once-you-pop-you-can’t-stop” chips stood in front of three different levels of the British judiciary trying to defend the decision that Pringles chips were not — by definition — potato chips.
Here’s how this comically complicated problem started. In the mid-20th century, a tax was born by way of France and England called the value-added or VAT tax. This “consumption tax” started off as a 10 percent tax on all goods bought from a business. More than 20 percent of the world’s tax revenue comes from the value-added tax making it a pretty big deal.
In Britain, most foods are exempt from the value-added tax, except for potato chips or “similar products made from the potato, or from potato flour.” This led to a long, arduous journey to figure out whether or not Pringles (which, by the way, were touted at one time as the “newfangled potato chip“) were actually potato chips. If they were ruled as chips, Pringles’ parent company at the time, Procter & Gamble, would be subject to a 17.5 percent VAT tax.
Procter & Gamble’s initial argument was that, no, Pringles were not potato chips because they didn’t “contain enough potato to have the quality of ‘potatoness.’” (Is that even a word?) They also argued Pringles didn’t resemble the shape of a potato chip and were more along the lines of a “savory snack.”
In 2008, a lower British court agreed and ruled that Pringles were in fact not potato chips, mainly because they contained only 42 percent potato and had “a shape not found in nature.” But just a year later, the Court of Appeal re-examined and reversed that decision, calling Procter & Gamble’s argument that the ingredients of a product don’t define the product “hogwash.”
With that decision, the behemoth corporation had to pay $160 million in taxes, while — begrudgingly — calling their newfangled potato chips, well, potato chips. And that is the story of Pringles and its brief dance with the world of taxes, junk food and British judges.
For the record, Pringles are still considered potato chips and probably always should because … they’re made from potatoes.