Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

KaiNovember 8, 2020

Inside the secretive world of weird flavoured chips

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

When it comes to Lynx-flavoured Mountain Dew gaming chips, everyone asks why – but nobody asks how. Don Rowe investigates a culinary mystery. 

Following the release of any number of Frankenstein’s monsters of food and beverages, the nation resounds with a groaning “why?”. It’s a fair question. Why should milk taste like pineapple lumps, or hummus like Marmite? What place does pāua have in a chip, and what values do chocolate and L&P really share, beyond the destruction of teeth?

Like most of the great questions of philosophy, it’s possible we may never know the truth. In the thousands of years since the Greeks pulled their fishing boats ashore and sat down to invent thinking and western group sex, philosophy has provided more questions than answers. From Plato to Roald Dahl’s Pig, our greatest minds have tortured themselves with the great riddle of why. Perhaps the more important question is how.

Like the Eleusinian Mysteries, the secrets of the chip are jealously guarded – though not by a high priesthood, but by chippy corporates, the guardians of flavour. Three times I have reached out to industry leaders and three times my questions – what is lamington flavour? How does a chip taste like a roast lamb with mint? Do you just dehydrate a living lamb? – and three times I have been rebuffed. I’m not alone – during my research I’ve learned that chip investigators from prestigious publications from the Guardian to the Atlantic have been stonewalled by the powers that be.

Fortunately, like in the days of Martin Luther of old, the fount of knowledge has been made available to anyone with an internet connection. Through communion with the algorithm, and after speaking to former chip insiders, I have divined the how, and even some of the why.

The first flavoured chips were invented by Irishman Joe ‘Spud’ Murphy (lol), owner of the Tayto chip company. Prior to Murphy’s innovation, chips came unseasoned, with a simple sachet of salt shipped inside the packet. But Murphy, presumably flowing with the mana of his Irish tūpuna, devised a method of adding cheese and onion seasoning during the production process, soon followed by Spud’s greatest gift to the world, and Chip Expert Madeleine Chapman’s unanimous GOAT flavour – salt and vinegar. He was on to a good thing; today Tayto is the third-largest snack company in the United Kingdom. Of course, Murphy’s Tayto is not to be confused with Northern Ireland’s Tayto for various commercial and political reasons.

There is a big difference, however, between salt and vinegar and a honey-soy-chicken-flavoured chip. How did we get from a minor but inspired take on a classic snack to the Frankenbeast chips of today? Science, baby.

In the years following the Second World War, as America began its ascent to global hegemon, the western world cottoned on to an ingredient Asian kitchens had utilised for years – the oft-maligned MSG. According to the Atlantic, between 1943 and 1961, domestic American production of MSG jumped from 3 million to 21 million pounds a year as homemakers realised their food didn’t have to taste “shit” and could actually taste “good”.

This epiphany created a mad rush to find or design more flavour enhancers. America, suddenly flush with scientists rich with medicinal and chemical knowledge and eager to create anything from weaponised gasses to mind control drugs, turned its attention to the mouth. Using burgeoning technologies like gas chromatograph and mass spectroscopy, scientists isolated thousands of compounds that evoke flavours from peanut to smoky barbecue. The most significant of these chemicals are known as pyrazines, and before long the patent office was fielding stacks of files as companies raced to trademark e.g. the taste of a banana.

But anyone who has eaten fruit knows that “banana” doesn’t actually taste like banana, even though it’s clearly banana. Dr John Prescott from TasteMatters Research and Consulting says this is a simple learned association.

As we grow up, Prescott says, “we learn what is an appropriate flavour for particular contexts, so that our idea of banana is dependent on what food contains that flavour, actual banana or confectionery, for example”.

The challenge is in bridging the gap between the gifts of science and the commercial demands of the food and beverage portfolio. Food writer and dietitian Jennifer Yee Collinson, formerly of Bluebird, says R&D teams are constantly trying to isolate the notes that give rise to the flavour associations of certain foods. When a chip-monger devises a lamington-flavoured chip, they don’t actually want it to taste like a real lamington, she says, but a satisfying proxy.

“Technologists are trying to match the chip to the flavour profile. They might say ‘this is going to be a bit of a weird taste’, because a lamington is a sponge cake with icing and coconut, so how do you translate that on to a savoury snack? That’s a real challenge and it comes down to the skill of the food technologist and the creator. They have to have a good palate.”

Beyond the range of pyrazines, esters and thiols, chip manufacturers also utilise the natural flavours themselves. Chicken chips might not taste like chicken, but they still contain chicken, in order to achieve the flavour of “chicken”. In fact, according to Bluebird’s website, the only flavours suitable for vegetarians and vegans are ready salted, sea salt, kettle sea salt and somehow the original Dorito (which is barely a chip).

“Chip flavours may be derived from, say, roast lamb and minted peas,” says Collinson. “If it’s natural flavours it could be constructed from just that – it could literally be dehydrated lamb and mint and herbs, and then it’s transformed into a salt which is applied to the chip.”

Picture a sea of chips, Collinson says, bobbing and bubbling in oil. They are swept from their bath by conveyor belt, whisked away through a tunnel to be coated in the literal essence of lamb, their oily surface greedily sucking at the dust. Others, your puffed derivatives like, say, a Twistie, spin maddeningly in giant concrete mixers, absorbing a slurry of cheese and salt. Then they’re fanged into a bag and sent out to you.

So why do we harness the awesome powers of science and taste to come up with objectively cooked flavours? Money, of course! Flavour releases are seasonal, and are all about exciting the consumer base, Collinson says. Moro-flavoured chocolate-sprinkled blue chips are never intended to outposition or outlast your classic S&V, only to get you in the door, to remind you that the chip exists, and to make sure that next time you’re in the store, you pick the chip that’s right for you.

After all, you are what you eat. Wafer-thin chive chips? No, por favor, for I am not the Queen of France. Vape-flavoured Mountain Dew Doritos? It’s game on.

Keep going!