Pringles are an iconic global brand, and a completely unique snack food. Scientifically engineered to be an improvement on classic potato chips, and with an incredible history, how do Pringles stack up?
If you’re one of the millions of people who watched Claire Saffitz try to replicate Pringles, you probably gained a new appreciation for the complexity of this deceptively simple snack. The unique shape, along with the distinctive texture and flavor, is near-impossible to recreate in a home kitchen, even for a professional chef. From the shape, to the mascot, to the name, the history of Pringles is a history of innovation and creativity, and involves some unexpected figures.
Early Pringles Development
In 1956, Procter & Gamble approached organic chemist Fred Baur and asked him to improve the potato chip. Consumers complained about greasy chips, broken chips, stale chips, and also the excess amount of air in a bag (a complaint that still plagues potato chip lovers today), and Baur was asked to find a solution.
Baur spent two years working with a potato-based fried dough, developing the unique hyperbolic paraboloid shape of the new chips, and the method of packing them into a tubular container. Baur’s chips were smooth, stackable, fresh, and protected. But they didn’t taste very good, and he was eventually assigned to a different project. Baur was granted a patent for the unique Pringles container and the stacking of the curved chips, and, at his request, some of his ashes were interred in a Pringles can after his death in 2008.
In the mid-1960s, P&G researchers returned to the problem of potato chips and started working with Baur’s design. Alexander Liepa worked on refining the taste, while a young mechanical engineer named Gene Wolfe worked on developing the machines that would cook them. Gene Wolfe would go on to be one of America’s most notable science fiction and fantasy authors, whose work is still globally important and influential today.
With the revised recipe and improved manufacturing techniques, Pringles was launched in Indiana in 1968. By 1991, Pringles were available around the world.
Pringles: What’s in a Name?
The product was originally launched as “Pringles Newfangled Potato Chips”. There are a number of theories as to the origin of the name “Pringles”. In 1937, food scientist Mark Pringle secured a patent for a method of processing potatoes, and his work was referenced in P&G’s own patents, so perhaps he lent his name to the product. Another theory was that two employees in Procter & Gamble’s advertising department lived on Pringle Drive in Ohio, and thought the name sounded good with potato chips. Whatever the source, the name Pringles stuck.
It was the moniker “potato chips” that would prove problematic. Because Pringles are made from potato-based dough, other snack makers felt that they didn’t meet the definition of potato chip, and took their complaints to the US FDA. In 1975, the FDA ruled that they could only use the word “chip” if it was part of the phrase “potato chips made from dried potatoes”. Rather than adopting such a long and unappealing phrase, Pringles renamed their product to “potato crisps” instead.
As you might anticipate, in the late 1990s, the snack was introduced in Great Britain, and the name controversy began again. As with “chips” in the US, “crisps” has a specific meaning and connotation in the UK. In Great Britain, the name was even more significant, because at the time there was a 17.5% VAT on potato crisps and potato-based snack foods.
In 2008, Procter & Gamble lawyers successfully argued that, since Pringles are only 42% potato, and in a shape not found in nature, the brand should be exempt from the tax. While they won the ruling, the decision was appealed and reversed in 2009. However, P&G had wisely been paying the VAT in the interim, so they owed no back taxes for fees as a result of the reversed decision.
In 2011, Pringles was the fourth most popular snack brand in the world, accounting for 2.2% of the global snack food market share. In 2012, P&G sold Pringles to Kellog, making Kellog the second-largest snack food company in the world at the time.
Pringles has committed to making all its packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025. In the UK, Pringles has partnered with TerraCycle to create more than 200 locations where Pringles cans can be recycled, and the program has recycled over 316,000 pounds of waste so far.
Pringles is one of the world’s most beloved snack foods, and an amazing example of what happens when science meets nature to improve the potato snack.
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