This Is How Much Air Is in Your Bag of Chips

Visual artist Henry Hargreaves decided to take to the lab to confirm his darkest suspicions about the chip industry.

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Nov 9 2015, 9:00pm

Photo via Flickr user jared k

There is a lot of misleading packaging out there.

Much of it is inherently sexist, non-sensical, and doesn't really have an impact on consumer behaviour. But that's not half as bad as what's going on inside the bag.

Henry Hargreaves, decided that after years of being underwhelmed by the contents, or lack thereof, of his favourite chip bags, to take to the lab to confirm his darkest suspicions about the chip industry.

"Over the years of being a consumer and buying crisps I was constantly being disappointed with the value for money. And eventually I snapped," Hargreaves, a Brooklyn-based visual artist, told the BBC in a recent report. "Packaging and the display of food has become an illusion and a fantasy."

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Hargreaves, who apparently also has a knack for science, placed the full bags of chips into a jug of water and measured the displacement. Then, he used what he calls the "most efficient way to package chips," which is vacuum sealing them, so that there is almost no air surrounding them. Finally, the difference between the initial volume and the post-vacuum displacement would allow him to measure the real difference between air and chip.

"I crunched the numbers," Hargreaves says in a YouTube video entitled Waste of Space. "to figure out the percentages of how much chips there was to air ratio and see how they all stacked against each other and which ones were the best value for money and which ones were really just the most expensive air that you are able to buy."

And while everyone has experienced the sadness of buying more air than chip, Hargreaves' results were surprising even to him.

"My hypothesis was that there might be 50 percent air in the worst offenders, not 87 percent," he told the BBC. That's right, some bags are only 13 percent chip, meaning that proportionately, the bulk of your hard-earned dollar is going towards the nitrogen that fills the bags (oxygen makes the chips go stale, and doesn't lock in flavour as long as nitrogen). Among the products tested were Doritos (86 percent air), Chex Mix (56 percent), Bugles (57 percent), Wise (59 percent), Frito's (64 percent), Pringles (66 percent), Lays (86 percent), and Cape Cod (87 percent).

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The results violated the visual artist's even the most intuitive assumptions. "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."

As for the the amount of air inside, Hargreaves even gave the big chip companies the benefit of the doubt, assuming that the huge volume of air played a protective role. "I assumed the air would stop them breaking, but the reverse happened," he told the BBC. "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." Wrong again.

The federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act is supposed to prevent the public from being misled by packages containing excessive "slack fill," nonfunctional or empty space that creates an illusion of more product, often through underfilling, indented bottoms, or extra walls. But slack fill is allowed if it keeps a product from breaking, if the package does double-duty (as a dispenser or tray, for example), to accommodate machinery on the assembly line, or to discourage theft in the store.

Hargreaves' experiment confirmed his worst fears about the big chip companies—fears usually quelled by the waft of Cool Ranch-scented nitrogen that emerges from a freshly opened bag of chips. Instead, Hargreaves' results will leave many feeling as deflated as a bag of Cape Cod chips (87 percent air).