The Question that Baffled Britain's High Court: Are Pringles Potato Chips?

iStock/eskaylim
iStock/eskaylim

Are Pringles potato chips? From 2007 to 2009, that question plagued judges at three different levels of the British judiciary, leading to a series of head-scratchingly comical legal proceedings. The stakes, however, were nothing but serious: The ruling put hundreds of millions of dollars on the line.

The question revolved around Britain’s value-added tax, or VAT. According to the 1994 VAT Act, any product that is “wholly, or substantially wholly, made from the potato” was subject to a 17.5 percent tax. In 2007, Britain’s VAT and Duties Tribunal determined that Pringles fell under the tax’s umbrella—and demanded the chipman payeth.

Procter & Gamble, who owned Pringles at the time, vehemently disagreed. They argued that Pringles were only 42 percent potato flour, with the rest mostly a slurry of wheat starch, corn and rice flour, and vegetable oil. The snack food, they said, could not be classified as a potato chip because, unlike a real potato chip, its overall contents and shape were “not found in nature.”

In addition to being unappetizing, this argument was a marked shift from the company's original position. When the snack first hit shelves in the mid-1960s, Pringles were proudly marketed as “potato chips.” (More specifically, as newfangled potato chips.) They did this despite reported complaints from competing chip-makers, who argued that the snack food—which is cooked from a thin, mashed potato-like dough—should be classified differently.

But now that millions of dollars were on the line, Procter & Gamble’s lawyers wholeheartedly embraced Pringles's unique place as a “not-really-a-chip” chip. The VAT and Duties Tribunal, however, didn’t buy it. In a decision that sounds more like a Zen kōan, the tax masters argued that Pringles were chips because they were “made from potato flour in the sense that one cannot say that it is not made from potato flour.”

To that, the British High Court of Justice basically replied: Wow, that's confusing! Now, excuse us, we would like to top it.

The following year, the High Court stepped in and reversed the Tribunal's decision. First, the Court argued that Pringles were more akin to a cake or bread than a chip. (Who, of course, can forget their first birthday Pringle?) Furthermore, the Court declared that a Pringle—which we should emphasize is, in fact, mostly made from potatoes—was not “made from the potato." Their reasoning invoked Greek metaphysics, claiming that Pringles did not possess the required amount of (and this is their word) “potatoness.”

The controversy didn’t end there. In 2009, the case moved up another judicial wrung, this time to Britain’s Supreme Court of Judicature. The lower court's metaphysical arguments about "potatoness" were enough to make Aristotle's brain hurt, the justices moaned. They criticized the previous ruling for its “overelaborate, almost mind-numbing legal analysis” and dubbed the topic at hand a “short practical question calling for a short practical answer.”

Procter & Gamble’s lawyers bore down anyway. They claimed that a product made from “a number of significant ingredients ... cannot be said to be ‘made from’ one of them.” Lord Justice Jacob called this argument hogwash. If that were true, he argued, then “a marmalade made using both oranges and grapefruit would be made of neither—a nonsense conclusion."

After working itself in and out of semantic pretzels, the Court said the easiest solution to Chipgate was to appeal to a hypothetical child: If you asked an 8-year-old to explain what a Pringle was, what would he or she say?

The question of a Pringle’s identity, the Court argued, “would probably be answered in a more relevant and sensible way by a child consumer than by a food scientist or a culinary pedant.”

In other words, a chip is a chip is a chip—Pringles among them. With that, Procter & Gamble had to pay $160 million in taxes.

Though common sense prevailed, it doesn’t always end that way: Around the time of the great Pringle debate, the state of Oklahoma was busy confidently declaring watermelon a vegetable.

Cheese Made from Celebrities' Microbes Is On View at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum

iStock/bhofack2
iStock/bhofack2

London's Victoria & Albert Museum is home to such artifacts as ancient Chinese ceramics, notebooks belonging to Leonardo da Vinci, and Alexander McQueen's evening dresses—all objects you might expect to see in a world-famous museum. However, the cultural significance of the selection of cheeses now on display at the museum is less obvious. The edible items, part of a new exhibition called FOOD: Bigger than the Plate, were cultured from human bacteria swabbed from celebrities.

Though most diners may prefer not to think about it, bacteria is an essential ingredient in many popular foods. Beer, bread, chocolate, and cheese all depend on microbes for their signature flavors. Scientists took this ick factor one step further by sourcing bacteria from the human body to make cheese for the new exhibit.

Smell researcher Sissel Tolaas and biologist/artist Christina Agapakis first conceived their human bacteria cheese project, titled Selfmade, in 2013. When a chef and team of scientists recreated it for the Victoria & Albert Museum, they found famous figures to donate their germs. Blur bassist Alex James, chef Heston Blumenthal, rapper Professor Green, Madness frontman Suggs, and The Great British Baking Show contestant Ruby Tandoh all signed up for the project.

A display of the human-microbe cheese at Victoria & Albert museum
The Victoria & Albert Museum

Once the celebrities' noses, armpits, and belly buttons were swabbed, their microbiome samples were used to separate milk into curds and whey. The curds were then pressed into a variety of cheeses: James's swab was used to make Cheshire cheese; Blumenthal's, comté; Professor Green's, mozzarella; Suggs's, cheddar; Tandoh's, stilton.

The cheeses are being sequenced in the lab to determine if they're safe for human consumption. But even if they don't contain any harmful bacteria, they won't be served on anyone's cheese plates. Instead. they're being kept in a refrigerated display at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Museum-goers can catch the cheeses and the rest of the items spotlighted in FOOD: Bigger Than the Plate from now through October 20, 2019.

The Reason Why We Pour Milk Over Cereal

iStock.com/tomasworks
iStock.com/tomasworks

Sometimes, if a movie or television show wants to communicate how unusual a character is, they’ll depict them pouring a box of cereal into a bowl and then adding some kind of disgusting liquid—orange juice, water, coffee, possibly alcohol. This is an easy way to illustrate someone's eccentricity because everyone knows only milk goes in cold cereal. With no exceptions. Even warm milk, which a small number of individuals enjoy, has to be more palatable than the alternatives.

But is milk the acceptable choice for cereal because it’s the best, or because of something else? Is there a reason we don’t simply drown Frosted Flakes in water and call it a day?

The state of our cereal bowls can be traced to the origins of cereal itself. Back in the mid-1800s, Americans were enjoying very hearty breakfasts of bacon, eggs, meat, and other foods that could easily show up on their dinner plates. Many complained of gastrointestinal upset, a condition that health experts (many of them self-appointed) began to refer to as dyspepsia. This ill-defined malady was thought to be the result of consuming massive meals in the morning. Advocates argued that breakfast should be lighter and healthier, comprised of what they considered simple and easily digestible foods.

One such proselytizer was James Caleb Jackson, a vegetarian who ran a sanitarium called Our Home on the Hillside in Dansville, New York. At the time, sanitariums for health were considered retreats and a way to adopt healthier eating and exercise habits. Jackson was a follower of Reverend Sylvester Graham, the inventor of graham crackers and a man who believed the crackers could help curb sexual appetites that flamed in the meat-eating population. In the 1870s, Jackson began to market a product he called granula—graham flour that was baked, crumbled, and baked a second time. The tiny pebbles of flour were hearty and filling.

There’s some debate over whether it was Jackson or his mother, Lucretia, who actually came up with granula. In her son’s newsletters dating back to 1867, Lucretia published recipes for what amounted to the same thing. But whichever Jackson came up with it, there was a problem: Eaten dry, the granula was like trying to swallow construction rubble. In the newsletter, Lucretia cautioned that the cereal had to be soaked in milk or warm water, presumably to make it palatable. Other accounts of granula have consumers soaking it in milk overnight in order to make it chewable. People sometimes referred to it as “wheat rocks.”

Granula developed a following, but it wasn’t until another sanitarium owner named John Harvey Kellogg mimicked the recipe that it truly caught on. Kellogg, who owned the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, offered granula for its purported health benefits but referred to it as granola to avoid any legal entanglements with Jackson. By 1889, Kellogg was selling two tons of granola a week. By 1903, more than 100 cereal companies were operating out of Battle Creek. Kellogg, of course, became famous for his far more appealing Corn Flakes (which he invented because he thought they would curb masturbation).

Even as cereal became more processed and softer, the tendency to soak it in milk never left the public consciousness. Milk was the perfect way to add moisture to the dry food without turning it into a completely soggy mess. Like cereal, milk was also synonymous with health, full of vitamins and calcium. In a 1922 newspaper ad for Corn Flakes, Kellogg’s exhorted the wonders of the combination, offering that:

“With cold milk and luscious fresh fruit, Kellogg’s are extra delightful—so crisp, and appetizing.”

One scientific study published in the Journal of Food Science in 2011 even found that the fat in milk attached itself to the surface of cereal, helping to ward off moisture and keep cereal crunchier for longer than if it were immersed in water.

Of course, milk is no longer required to soften the bricks Lucretia and John Jackson were peddling. Culturally, we’re still predisposed to keeping milk and cereal part of a two-hand breakfast option. Had Lucretia advocated for coffee, orange juice, or something else, things might have turned out differently. And much soggier.

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