JOANNA ELM, Author, Journalist, Attorney

Potato Chips: Do We Really Need 250 Flavors ?

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Which of the following are actual flavors of Lay’s potato chips:

a) chilli and knuckle of pork; b) Marmite ; c) balsamic sweet onion; d) all of the foregoing ?

If you answered (d), you would be right. You may be astounded however to find out, as I did after a recent shopping trip, that those flavors are just three of some 250 flavors of potato chips made by Lay’s and its foreign subsidiaries world-wide.

Shopping for Snacks

My shopping trip was a mission to pick up snacks and beverages for my son and his girlfriend who were visiting for a long holiday weekend. I texted my son from the supermarket as to flavors and brands. This is how the texts went:

11.03am: Me: Beer? Am in Publix now

11.03am: He: Bud is good; 2 liter of coke and some orange juice as well?

11.04am: Me: Real or diet (coke)?

11.05am: He: Real

11.06am: Me: Pulp or no pulp?

11.07am: He: No pulp

11.07am: Me: Great! Got it! Snacks?

11.08am: He: Ummmmm Chips? Pretzels

11.09am: Me: Ok what kind of chips?

11.10am: He: Lays

11.17am: Me: Ok Lays. Classic? BBQ? OvenBaked? Wavy? HoneyBBQ?

11.18am: He: Haha Classic

Haha indeed. It should be noted that the seven minutes which elapsed between my son naming the brand and my question about flavors was spent locating the potato chips aisle, and then, proverbially picking myself up off the floor when confronted by the row upon row of different flavors made by the same manufacturer. I did not list them all in the text, mainly because back then I was still attached to my flip-top phone which had survived the introduction of all six iterations of Apple iphones. Inputting Dill Pickle and Lightly Salted would have required hitting the #5 key three times each time for the “ l” and the #4 key three times each time for the i.

Display of Lay's potato chips, Publix, Palm Beach

Display of Lay’s potato chips, Publix, Palm Beach

 

I was astounded when I subsequently googled Lay’s potato chip flavors, and discovered, according to nowthatsnifty.blogspot there were more than 200 including the aforementioned Marmite flavor in the UK, and the knuckle of pork in Poland.  A spokesperson for Frito-Lay North America confirmed for me just the other day that there are “nearly 250 flavors across 35 countries.”  What’s more, for several years Lay’s added another four flavors per year after consumers suggested new flavors and then voted for the best ones. Thus, was added wasabi and ginger, and biscuits and gravy.

Greed is Good

The explosion of flavors and types of potato chips is not the most incomprehensible proliferation of variety in supermarket products. New varieties of every basic product appear all the time whether ice cream or cleaning materials.   Nothing could have prepared me for this when I first arrived in America in 1979. In the corner deli next door to my apartment building, the only choice as to potato chip flavors was between plain, BBQ, or sour cream with onion. Like most NYC singles, I rarely shopped in supermarkets, but even had I done so the variety would have been similarly limited.

It was not until the 80s, the decade of Dynasty, and Dallas, and Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is Good” mantra that conspicuous consumption became a virtue. It was also the decade when various dietary guidelines prompted food manufacturers to diversify.  In 1982 Budweiser introduced Bud Light , and Coca Cola introduced Diet Coke. Caffeine-free diet coke came along in 1983.   Tropicana debuted its Tropicana pure premium homestyle o.j. with added pulp in 1985,  and calcium fortified o.j. appeared in 1993.

So Many Tides

In 1984, Tide introduced Liquid Tide as an option to its powder detergent. I can also now select from more than a half-dozen Tide Liquid variants, and that’s not even including the HE series ( for use in high efficiency front loading washing machines), or the low-cost yellow packaged variant which according to P&G marketing documents is reportedly targeted to attract individuals from “hardworking households” and people who work in “odor-generating environments.”

Tide washing machine detergent fills five shelves

Tide washing machine detergent fills five shelves

You cannot find this latter variant on sale in my local Publix in Palm Beach which is a shame because in some circles getting out of bed at 5.30am for a robust early morning game of tennis could be considered if not hard-working, then at least, odor-generating. No matter because, of course,  I can choose from the other variants of liquid Tide including “upgraded” Tide detergents like “Tide Plus A Touch of Downy” which includes “ scent pearls for a comforting long-lasting scent” or “TidePlus Febreze Freshness” which releases febreze freshness “as you move through the day” in case I decide to stay in my sweat drenched tennis outfit into the late afternoon!

Why Does it All Look the Same When It’s Not?

I don’t mind researching the relative pros and cons of a car, or maybe even, if absolutely necessary, a vacuum cleaner. But I really don’t want to access the internet to research what variant of Tide liquid detergent I should use.

My husband ignores my annoyance in supermarkets, and ignores my rhetorical questions: Do we really need 93 different variants of detergent? Honestly, is this one really different to that one? Why does all this same-looking stuff have different labels?

“This is America, it’s all about choice, ” he says in that proud, accusatory tone that suggests my whining is unAmerican, and that being an immigrant I don’t get it. Maybe he’s right. I am, after all, a child of rationing.

Babies, born to impoverished parents like mine in London, got only one type of orange juice, given out in clinics under the National Health Service, and only one type of milk, no doubt the whole fat kind with the cream on top, and I believe only one brand of cod liver oil (liquid not tablets). It was free, and we took it and we thrived on it and were never sick (but that’s a different story).

In any event, choice seems to be an illusory concept for my husband.  He never reads the labels. That’s why he will bring home a Breyers frozen dairy dessert, introduced recently with gruesome corn syrup as the main ingredient, instead of the “best- ice- cream –ever” he remembers from his childhood in Philadelphia.  That’s the one containing only natural ingredients of fresh cream, sugar and milk, but now packaged identically to the vile dairy dessert.   It’s also why the other day he brought home Tropicana o.j. with lots of pulp because the container had the same shape and the color of the liquid inside was orange just like the no pulp o.j we usually buy.

Too Many Choices ? 

But then, maybe choice is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s an oft-touted wisdom that the fewer choices we have, the happier we are. The idea is obviously acknowledged by corporations and retailers. Indeed, there are studies purporting to help retailers determine precisely the optimum number of variants of any product to display for consumers.  One such California study concluded that customers were more likely to purchase a product (in that case, a jam) when offered six choices rather than 24.  Which is probably why you’ll only ever see about a dozen various flavors of Lay’s in any one supermarket, and why Frito-Lay this year gave up on adding flavors and instead asked consumers to vote which old flavors to swap out for new.  It turns out consumers said, enough already, and voted not to swap out any of the old flavors. Lesson learned by Lay’s, I suspect.

In the meantime, I’ll apply the major lesson I’ve learned here: which is never to allow my husband to do the food shopping when my son is arriving for a visit.

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  1. Pingback: Trying for a Third (Behind the Scenes #1) - JOANNA ELM, Author, Journalist, Attorney

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