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Crisps: Is classic potato losing its appeal?

Bowl of crisps

They may not be the healthiest of foods but crisps are still the second most popular snack in the UK, research shows. But with crisps made from other vegetables and even fruit now on the market, is the classic potato crisp under threat?

Whether you like them salted, peppered, plain or hand-cooked, eating crisps is practically a British pastime.

A third of children eat crisps daily, according to research by YouGov and 40% of UK adults eat crisps at lunchtime.

Our taste for the salty treats does not appear to be waning either as our spend on crisps, nuts and snacks increased by 29% to £3.3 billion over 2007-12, reports market research firm Mintel.

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But the crisp market as we know it is changing, as consumers look to find healthier alternatives to fried potato snacks including popcorn and root vegetable snacks.

"We have seen more 'better for you' recipes come to the fore, with a big emphasis on baked as opposed to fried, and more wholegrain and multigrain crisps," says Alex Beckett, a senior food analyst at Mintel.

"At the end of the day crisps are an indulgent treat and we eat so many of them but consumers are not oblivious to their health credentials," he says.

Walkers is still one of the leading crisp brands in the UK and holds a 56% share of the potato snack and popcorn market.

The amount of salt in Walkers brands has been cut by between 25% and 55% since 2005 says owner PepsiCo - equivalent to taking 2,400 tonnes of salt and 40,000 tonnes of saturated fat per year out of the UK diet.

"We've been working hard to ensure our product range offers consumers choice," says a PepsiCo spokesperson.

"That's why, since 2006, we have also launched Walkers Lights, which contain 30% less fat than our core brand; Walkers Baked, which contains 70% less fat and SunBites; which deliver at least 16g of wholegrain per pack."

Snack facts:

Bowl of crisps
  • The UK crisp market is currently worth £927.5m
  • Crisps are most popular with males aged 45-64
  • 47% of UK consumers say thick cut crisps are more satisfying than thin cut
  • Over a third of crisps are eaten at lunchtime
  • 45% of UK consumers are concerned about how healthy crisps are
  • 34% of UK consumers eat nuts and seeds as a healthy alternative to crisps

Source: Kantar Worldpanel and Mintel

Hand cooked crisps and baked products are often perceived as being more natural and healthy. But in practice the calorie content can vary considerably between brands.

"Some of the puff-based products, if you'd class them as crisps, are relatively low in calories because they're full of air," says nutritionist Sarah Schenker.

"Whereas something that's a thicker hand-cooked crisp tends to be higher in calories and fat because it's a more dense product.

"But I think the main issue with any of these things is portion size, so just be aware if you buy a big one of these sharing bags, they are meant for sharing."

In a move away from baked and fried crisps altogether, Charlie Fermor of Perry Court Farm in Kent has pioneered his own range of air-dried fruit crisps.

"Our fruit crisps are completely natural. It's just apple. There's no oil or sugar or salt or any horrible stuff.

"Because the crisps are dried and not baked you get all the nutrients you would with a fresh apple locked into a handy packet."

Mr Fermor uses around 15 to 20 varieties of seasonal British apples throughout the year, such as the Norfolk Royal and Discovery, each with their own unique flavour profile.

"It's a sweet product really so it's an alternative to a packet of sweets really rather than an alternative to a bag of crisps. But once people get into them they do get addicted."

Air dried fruit crisps Mr Fermor accidentally discovered how to make fruit crisps after leaving cuts of apple in the air drier for too long

Another boutique brand looking to promote healthier snacking is Grimsby-based crisp company Scrubbys.

"We use oleic sunflower oil which has greater health benefits - more of the good fats rather than the bad fats," says Claire Brumby, director of Scrubbys Foods.

"We're also gluten-free."

Ms Brumby says the vegetables are scrubbed rather than peeled, and then cooked with the skin on, to lock in their fibre content.

Potato crisps do in fact have some of the health benefits that you would find in a potato such as high potassium content, and fibre, explains Sarah Schenker.

"Some of the Vitamin C will be destroyed in the cooking process but you will find additional nutrients in potatoes that will stay within the crisps and that does include fibre as well.

"I wouldn't advocate getting all your fibre from crisps but as a little health bonus you could say they're not bad for fibre."

Graphic of crisp buying preferences Mintel interviewed 1,383 internet users aged over 16 who have eaten crisps in the last six months

Tyrrells is currently the leading producer of vegetable crisps in the UK with almost a 30% share of the market.

Earlier this year it launched a premium range of Swanky Veg crisps made from hand cooked taro, golden beetroot, parsnips and purple carrots.

"Like most crisps, we operate in the more indulgent world of food," says Oliver Rudgard, marketing director at Tyrrells.

"However, we have a special way of making our crisps, which mean that we produce the lowest-fat hand cooked crisps in the UK.

"The way we do this is by carefully spinning the crisps after they have been cooked, to make sure that any residual sunflower oil is removed, before the warm crisps are gently seasoned and packed ready for the shop.

"But the guiding rule for all of our products is that if it doesn't taste great, it simply doesn't make the grade."

So are consumers really prepared to upgrade their standard potato crisp for a vegetable crisp at a premium price?

Scrubbys root vegetable crisps "Crisps don't have to be made of potato anymore," says Ms Brumby of Scrubbys Foods

"I think because you're looking at four vegetables rather than just a potato, any root vegetable crisp is always going be more expensive than just a potato crisp," says Ms Brumby.

"Obviously with potato crisps you tend to just eat them as they are.

"But with our crisps, we're getting chefs who are using them in recipes as well, such as a crust on a salmon bake or using them as croutons in soups."

Classic fans of crisps and a sandwich may be confused by these posh vegetable bites, which are no longer just a lunchtime snack.

"It's just that we're so unfamiliar with them," says Mr Beckett.

"I mean is it a lunch thing or more of an indulgent treat?"

Although we may be willing to embrace new crisp flavours and formats, the plain old salted crisp does not look to be losing its appeal.

Sea-salted crisps are still the best-selling flavour produced by Tyrrells and Burts' Chips, followed closely by flavours such as sea salt and cider vinegar.

"The vegetable crisp market is not only very niche, but also saturated," says a spokesperson from Burts Chips.

With 92% of adults buying potato and grain-based snacks in 2012, the classic potato crisp will still take some beating.

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