Friday, 22 February 2019

What old crisp packets dig up

Posted by Duika Burges Watson, Lecturer at Newcastle University based in the Institute of Health and Society

It appears that I’m an academic litter picker. I like to have hands on experience of topics I write and teach about. Inspired by the new module I’m leading on Global Health in the Anthropocene, and in particular a lecture on plastic pollution and health, I went litter picking. The Anthropocene is a new (ish) term to public health - considered to mark a turning point where “changes to the structure and function of the Earth's natural systems represent a growing threat to human health”[1].

I certainly found a good site for it. In less than 10 minutes from a 2 metre square area, I collected 69 crisp packets amongst the plastic bags and other items. I was intrigued, so I took them home and washed, sorted and ‘analysed’ them. Some use by dates were no longer visible, but of those I could read, 49 of 69 were Walkers crisp packets (parent company Pepsico) with use by dates from between 1996 to 2014. I went back the following weekend to the same site, dug a little deeper, and collected a further 89 crisp packets of which 51 were Walkers. The oldest packet was a Geordie company, Tudor (more on them later), with the use by date 10th January 1992.

Walkers bought out Newcastle
based company Tudor in 1987
There is a lot to be explored on crisp packets including use by dates, ingredients, health labelling and advertising.  Many even listed the time of production, often very late at night. For example, a Walkers smokey bacon use by 23rd June 2012 was made at 10.48pm. The irony of time was not lost on me in terms of the Anthopocene: we can know the exact minute the crisps were made (but not the date), they take about 2 minutes to eat and result in decades of rubbish.

Walkers began using foil bags in 1993 with plastic coatings. Yet people have been finding perfectly preserved plastic Walkers bags from the 80s in litter picking efforts. In September 2018, no doubt inspired by David Attenborough’s shocking profile of marine plastics in the series ‘Blue Planet’, the public started sending their bags back to Walkers. Royal Mail protested that people had to put them in envelopes first.

Walkers took up the challenge created by public protests. They have promised to find alternative solutions to the pesky bags by 2025, and until then have set up a recycling deal with company terracycle across the UK. There are collection points all over the UK.

But it wasn’t just the plastic pollution that concerned me. Crisp consumption is one of those things that people in public health worry about because these are classic examples of the high fat, salt, sugar foods where over-consumption can play havoc with our health. But we’ve been eating crisps for a long time, long before epidemics of obesity, and they have a cultural history to boot. A Brief History of Crisps (2012), suggests they were a British invention that turned up in the English edition of The Housekeeper’s Manual in 1829. The ‘modern’ industrial crisp really found its crunch after the first World War when the Smith’s company enrolled grocers and butchers across the UK to offer crudely made crisps (made in house with lots of fatty smells apparently). In the 1950s it all changed, technologies were imported from the USA and production scaled up. The first company to employ this technology was the previously mentioned Tudor. In 1967 they introduced the first ‘salt and vinegar’ chips to the UK market from their base in Sandyford, Newcastle. Tudor’s 1970s-80s commercials have a distinctly Geordie feel (note the ‘Dunstan Rocket’ in the first ad below – an iconic piece of architecture!). As a more recent immigrant to Newcastle, I had always wondered why every time I got served a sandwich it was with crisps – now I know – they have a proud Northern heritage. Walkers bought out the Tudor company in 1987.

In my ‘analysis’ of crisps, I have been wondering about their continued value as ‘food’. Is there a way we can still enjoy them as cultural icon without creating so much waste and without damaging our health? The one thing I’ve learned about food is that preferences change, tastes change – is the solution to learn to like something else? Last year the Walker’s crisp factory in Peterlee was bought by Heather Mills for her vegan food empire VBites. She is now looking to take over an abandoned factory in Northumberland. If successful, this would be the largest vegan food producing factory in the UK.

One of the sessions I’ll be leading in the Anthropocene module is on food – from source to senses. There is growing international concern about what kind of diet we ‘can’ eat if we want to protect and preserve the planet in the face of the Anthropocene and global climate change. The Eat Lancet Commission produced some rather controversial findings in January that offers their vision of what a ‘sustainable’ diet might involve[2]. Not unexpectedly, it involves cutting back on meat and eating more veg. Most agree that urgent change is required to farming systems and diet, but getting exactly the right mix of dietary components has created tensions. The Sustainable Food Trust, for example, points out that some land is not suitable for vegetable production and that grazing is the best option in some places. So, no simple solutions, and more debate to be had.

Another area of interest that will be covered in the course is new understanding of what it is that makes food ‘delicious’, how we ‘sense’ food, and what promotes ‘satiety’ or feelings of fullness. The ‘flavour’ of food involves a fusion of sensory inputs: smell, taste, colour, sound, trigeminal nerve stimulation[3], and our enjoyment of it is mediated by our culture, our history, our environment. Crisps are not difficult to figure out from a sensory perspective, like many other ‘fast’ foods, they are particularly heavy on salt, fat and sugar: what I would call ‘tongue’ foods. More complex ‘flavours’, particularly those involving smell, have been found to better trigger satiety – that’s why you can keep eating crisps without feeling full. But why do we like these ‘tongue foods’ so much? It’s complex; you’d have to join the course to explore this question.

So what about crisps then? Can we as public health researchers do more with ‘flavour’ to inspire different kinds of food choices? Could we encourage archaeological litter picking to engage the younger folk given so many foods are in single use plastics? People seem willing to give up plastic bags - could we encourage people to stop eating crisps until 2025 when they are in recyclable bags?  I don’t know the answer to these questions, but it will require more than litter picking to know. Food choice is academically interesting from a flavour point of view.  The crisp example throws up other challenges for public health - the Anthropocene creates interesting ethical questions about how we eat ‘beyond’ questions of the food itself. In March we will be running flavour masterclasses for the public where we get hands on to unpack the mystery of the humble crisp, why we like them, and what we should do about it! These questions are also being addressed by the Altered Eating Research Network (AERN) at Newcastle University, a new interdisciplinary collaboration that considers how our relationships with food are diverse, sometimes problematic, and how they intersect with the changing environments we live in and co-create. Keep an eye on the AERN website for details of flavour masterclasses and other upcoming events.

  1. Whitmee, S., Haines, A., Beyrer, C., Boltz, F., Capon, A.G., de Souza Dias, B.F., Ezeh, A., Frumkin, H., Gong, P., Head, P. and Horton, R., 2015. Safeguarding human health in the Anthropocene epoch: report of The Rockefeller Foundation–Lancet Commission on planetary health. The Lancet, 386(10007), pp.1973-2028.
  2. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems (Walter Willett et al.).
  3. The trigeminal nerve is responsible for sensations in the face and for motor control of biting and chewing. It is how we experience the ‘spiciness’ of food, the ‘coolness’ of mint or the ‘fizziness’ of carbonated drinks. Spence, C., Smith, B. and Auvray, M., 2015. Confusing tastes and flavours. Perception and its modalities, pp.247-274.

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