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What makes Pringles so infuriatingly addictive?

Has anyone in the history of civilisation popped open a tube of Pringles and eaten just one? For the humble snack — a crispy concoction of chemical flavourings, salt and starch — must surely rank as one of the most addictive foods in existence.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re famished, peckish or full, in the words of Pringles’s disarmingly accurate advertising slogan ‘once you pop, you can’t stop’. But what is it that makes Pringles so frustratingly moreish? What on earth goes into these curved crisps which give so many people the munchies?

Pringles were conceived in the technologically obsessed late-60s as a superior alternative to the conventional crisp — regular in shape, uniform in appearance and addictive in taste.

They were created in the US by Alexander Liepa, an employee of soap and food company Procter & Gamble (P&G). He initially called them the Pringles Newfangled Potato Chips, and is said to have picked the name out of the phone book — from the address Pringle Drive, Finneytown, Ohio.

From the start they were packaged in their distinctive tubes. The designer, Fredric Baur, was so pleased with his creation that he arranged for some of his ashes to be buried in a Pringles can on his death in 2008.

Today, they may be sold in the crisps aisles of supermarkets, but the resemblance to an ordinary potato crisp ends there.

Pringles are made from a sludge of potato flakes, corn flour, wheat starch and rice flour, mixed with water and preservatives. This slurry is rolled into a thin sheet and cut by machine into ovals, which are pressed into their distinctive curved shape on a conveyor belt and fried in vegetable oil for exactly 11 seconds.

Excess oil is blown off before they are sprayed with powdered flavourings and seasoning, stacked together and inserted into tubes.

As food goes, it’s about as natural as those other inventions of the Sixties — Pop Tarts, Smash instant mash and Angel Delight.

It takes 20 minutes to make one tube of Pringles — and considerably less time for a family to devour them.

Compared to other crisps, their potato content is pitiful

Pringles’ have just 42 per cent potato content. The amount of spud is so low that the best legal brains in Britain spent much of the last decade arguing whether Pringles are crisps at all.

The High Court ruled that the packaging, unnatural shape and the fact that they contained so little potato meant they were more akin to a cake or chocolate biscuit and so were exempt from the VAT paid on potato snacks. P&G — which argued that their product wasn’t a crisp — were delighted.

However, the decision was overturned the following year by the Court of Appeal, forcing the company to pay an additional £20 million a year to the taxman. The brand was sold to Kellogg Company in 2012.

It’s no accident that Pringles are so moreish. From their flavour and feel to their packaging and branding, they have been designed to be as addictive as possible. For clues why, you need look no further than the ingredients list on the side of every tube.

In addition to dehydrated potatoes, rice flour and wheat starch, Pringles contain a host of ingredients designed to get your taste buds and the hunger centre of the brain tingling.

The holy trinity

The biggest culprits are the holy trinity of addictive junk food — fat, salt and sugar. Around a third of every Pringle by weight is the sunflower and maize oil used in cooking, nearly 5 per cent of each crisp is made up of sugar and dextrose (another type of sugar) and, of course, there’s the salt.

A 30g serving of original Pringles — roughly 13 crisps — contains 155 calories, nearly 10g of fat, just less than 0.5g sugar and 0.5g of salt. And that’s just a recommended serving.

Those of us who get serious Pringles munchies can double that intake in a matter of minutes.

Anna Daniels, of the British Dietetic Association, says: ‘A lot of time and money is spent by food manufacturers on making crisps addictive because they want us to eat more and more of them. They are also made with highly refined carbohydrates so they don’t give you slow-release energy. It’s about quick fixes.’

Our brains are hard-wired to seek out fat, sugar and salt even if we are not hungry. Plenty of studies have shown that foods high in fat and salt light up the areas of our brains that handle reward and pleasure in a similar way to how the brain responds to drugs and alcohol.

This craving for fat, salt and sugar — sometimes called ‘hedonic hunger’ — evolved when our ancestors were hunters and gatherers on the plains of Africa. Back then, when food was scarce and lives infinitely tougher, it made sense for our ancestors to stock up whenever these super-ingredients were available. But such cravings are anything but healthy in a world of cheap and ample food.

It’s not just the fat, salt and sugar that make Pringles so yummy, however. Varieties, such as Texas barbecue and the paprika version are coated with monosodium glutamate (MSG) — a natural salt with a meaty taste commonly added to Chinese food.

What the meaty flavour of MSG does seem to do is fool the brain that Pringles are a useful source of protein, and this makes them seem more attractive. Furthermore, the curved shape is scientifically designed to fit your tongue, maximising the contact of the crisp with your taste buds.

Our taste buds are able to detect five tastes — bitter, sour, sweet, salt and meatiness. Pringles varieties such as Texas barbecue contain citric and malic acid, sugar, MSG and salt — ingredients which stimulate four of these flavours simultaneously — giving us a massive taste explosion in one go.

The crunchiness and melt-in-the-mouth sensations are also alluring. And while initially crispy, because Pringles are so thin they quickly dissolve on the tongue before we have time to relish that crispiness; it’s a sensation that seems to encourage us to reach for another, and another. Indeed, people eat more if they eat quickly because it takes time for the stomach to signal to the brain that it is full….. Read more

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