Crisp Culture: a national obsession.
In the UK, this week marks the end of British Summer Time. The clocks go back an hour, its dark by teatime, and the sky turns a uniquely depressingly shade of gunboat grey until March. Yes, The Long Dark Winter Of The Soul starts here. For millions of Britons, keeping Seasonal Affective Disorder at bay will mean spending many hours in that great British sanctuary: THE PUB. There will be beer, there will be football, there will be whingeing and moaning, and there will definitely be crisps. Lots and lots of crisps*.
Crisps might not be the most sociological of topics for me to discuss here on Sociology Lens, but they are certainly a valid cultural signifier. Until I started working alongside many foreign students in the UK, I never really questioned how ubiquitous these potato snacks really are, and how strange our national obsession can seem to newcomers. You know something is deeply embedded in one’s culture when you never think to question it.
A quick look at some figures. In the UK we eat about 6 billion packs of crisps every year, that’s around 140 packs per person. According to SNACMA (the Snack, Nut and Crisp Association of the UK), the UK crisps, savoury snacks and snack nuts market is worth £3.2 billion a year, and by total tonnage, we eat more crisps than any other country in Europe. Market research by TGI Global shows that 84% of Brits eat crisps regularly, only France and the USA eat as many.
What perhaps surprises my foreign friends is that crisps are seen as an acceptable part of a meal in the UK, by adults and children. Data from YouGov shows that two thirds of children aged 8-15 regularly eat crisps, and one third eat crisps every day, often as part of their packed lunch. “What kind of parent would give their children crisps every day?!” my European friends have asked me. For other countries, crisps are a snack to be shared and are often bought in larger bags for this purpose, whereas in the UK 70% of crisps are sold in small one-person bags of 25 grams or less – just enough to make a sandwich more interesting and to fit in your bag without popping.
I’m not totally sure why we love crisps so much but I’ll offer a few explanations. Firstly and most obviously, crisps taste great. They contain salt which we are hard-wired to love, and they are made from potatoes, which for a north European country like ours have a deep emotional and historical attachment.Secondly, the UK has a big snacking culture. Research by Mintel this year found that the average British under-20-year-old spends about £43 a year on savoury snacks, compared to just £12 for the French and £7 for Italians. The majority (76%) of Brits eat sandwiches for their lunch, and crisps go well with sandwiches and give the appearance of a rounded and varied ‘meal’. My less generous European friends might argue that this is further evidence that British food is terrible and we have so little respect for real cuisine that we are happy to stuff ourselves with processed food instead. I couldn’t possibly comment. Thirdly, Crisp manufacturers know exactly how to tempt us. Crisps are tested so that they have just the right level of crunch and fall apart in the mouth at the most satisfying point between too hard and too soft. The seasoning mix that goes into Walker’s Crisps, the bestselling crisp brand in the UK (and, incidentally, the pride of my hometown Leicester) – are a well-kept secret. Marketing campaigns using sports personalities like Gary Lineker and David Beckham have helped crisps to retain a respectable image, which is quite amazing when you think about how unhealthy they are. The British Health Foundation argues that with each packet containing the equivalent of two-and-a-half teaspoons of oil, we should really be re-evaluating an obsession which is linked to obesity, diabetes and heart disease. But despite the warnings, we remain defiantly attached to our nation’s favourite salty snack. Walker’s now emphasise the ‘homegrown’ and ‘British’ origin of their ingredients, well aware that even though crisps have only been around for about fifty or sixty years, they have now become part of our national culinary culture. Finally, back to the pub. The pub is a uniquely British (and to be fair, Irish) social phenomenon. When I lived in South Korea I had trouble explaining to my friends there the concept of the pub as a place specifically for drinking. Koreans always eat some kind of cooked food when they drink alcohol in bars, and so would be curious about what Brits we ate in our pubs. I explained that, along with our pints of lager, ale, cider, or stout we would eat crisps, or maybe even nuts, pork scratchings or scampi fries (they took a bit of explaining). At this, my Korean friends would look at me with a mix of confusion, disgust and pity. But maybe that’s just because they’ve never tasted a pack of wasabi-flavoured Seabrooks washed down with a pint of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord.
Crisps might be seen as a sad signifier of a lazy food-culture which prefers the cheap and quick over the subtle and slow; a culture which has allowed clever marketing to make our kids fat with a products which claim to be patriotic despite being dominated by multinationals like PepsiCo; a culture which relies on indulging in alcohol and salty snacks to foster a false sense of unity and cohesion, in an otherwise atomised and lonely society.
Maybe. Or maybe crisps are, just, basically, amazing.
*North American readers: Yes. Yes I do mean ‘Potato Chips’.