‘I was fed up with the air in crisp bags – so I measured it’

Ever opened a seemingly full bag of crisps to find it mostly empty space? One artist was so frustrated with the problem that he decided to size up some of the worst offenders.

It’s a deflating feeling: you open a bag of crisps, and the air rushes out, leaving a few underwhelming crumbs at the bottom of a huge packet.

This wasted space has now become the feature of artist Henry Hargreaves. “Over the years of being a consumer and buying crisps I was constantly being disappointed with the value for money. And eventually I snapped,” says Hargreaves. “Packaging and the display of food has become an illusion and a fantasy.

Bags of crisps are filled, not with air, but with nitrogen to keep them fresh

“My hypothesis was that there might be 50% air in the worst offenders, not 87%,” he says. 

Hargreaves calculated the volume of each filled bag by submerging them under water and then monitoring the displacement. He then vacuum-sealed the contents in another bag and compared the difference.

In fact, bags of crisps are not filled with atmospheric air but nitrogen, because the oxygen in air would cause the crisps to go soft. Nitrogen gives the product a longer shelf life, and a 1994 study suggested that it makes the crisps tastier.

You can see the process of Hargreaves’ work in the video below:

It’s not the first time consumers have felt short-changed by crisps manufacturers. In 2012, the UK crisp manufacturer Walkers came in for some stick on Twitter after some consumers found as few as five crisps in a single bag of their Deep Ridge range.

Walkers told the BBC’s Watchdog programme – a consumer rights show – that the air is necessary to protect the product during manufacture and transit. The nitrogen padding not only provides cushioning but accommodates for changes in atmospheric pressure.

In his crisp experiments, however, Hargreaves found a different story. “I assumed the air would stop them breaking, but the reverse happened. The ones with the most air also have the most breakage. I found when I vacuum-sealed them this was the most efficient way to transport and handle them without breaking them.”

86 out of every 100 trucks carrying Doritos don't need to be on the road. That’s a big carbon footprint – Henry Hargreaves

For Hargreaves, there’s also a more serious point to his work: all this extra air makes the bags less efficient to transport, which in turn is bad for the environment. “For example, 86 out of every 100 trucks carrying Doritos don't need to be on the road. That’s a big carbon footprint!”

Even the crisps not stored in bags contained lots of air. “I assumed that Pringles would be the best value for money because it’s a tube filled with chips, but still there’s a hell of a lot of air there and when I opened them the chips don’t even go the whole way to the top of the tube. They were the ones that surprised me most.”

Read more about Hargreaves’ last art project, when he reduced soft drinks to a sticky syrup to make into lollipops.

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