Why Are Potato Chip Bags Always Half-Full?

A bread company doesn’t sell you half a loaf. An ice cream manufacturer doesn’t fill the carton only halfway. Sparkling water goes to the top of the can, not the middle.

So why would chip companies think it’s acceptable to sell bags that are only half-filled?

Simple: it’s the best way to ensure a positive snacking experience.

Potato chips are quite fragile, and the jostle of bumpy roads, the brusque hustle of filling shelves, and the cramped spaces of grocery sacks can do real damage to those delicate crisps. Air, it turns out, is the best way to in protect the snack foods from becoming a bag full of crumbs.

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Of course, we don’t mind potato chip crumbs when we want them—for example, these chip-crusted fish fillets—but large, flaky chips are typically what we want with our burgers, sandwiches, or (and let’s be honest here) road-trip snacks.

Indeed, this “slack fill” is purposefully added to chip bags by snack manufacturers in order to act as a sort of cushion around potato chips and other delicate products. The top half (or two-thirds) of the bag is pumped full of gas before it’s sealed. This gives chips some room to move in the event the bag is jostled, jabbed, or jerked after the chips leave the manufacturer and before they end up in your hand at the vending machine or grocery store.

Yet, that gas is no ordinary gas. 

Food manufacturers use a special gas—one that research proves is the best option—so their snack foods don’t become soggy on the way to the store.

Inside those bags of crisp corn chips coated in delicate sea salt is nitrogen gas.

This colorless, odorless gas actually helps preserve the chips, keeping them fresh and crunchy while they’re waiting to join your dinner plate. Room air, which is actually 78 percent nitrogen, wouldn’t be good enough. The air we breathe would turn those chips rancid and stale quite quickly.

How to Get the Best Chip Bargain

You may now appreciate the need for the cushion of air in potato chip bags, but you may still be angry that it seems you’re “paying” for air. You’re not, but it is true some chip brands have more air than others.

For example, a study from Kitchen Cabinet Kings found that junk food icon Cheetos actually has the highest air-to-snack ratio of any chip brand, with 59 percent. At the other end of the scale (and presumably offering up more chips per bag) is Fritos, with just 19 percent air.

Other low air-to-snack crisp brands: Pringles (28 percent) and Tostitos (34 percent).

If you want to make sure you’re getting the best bang for your Baked Lays buck, don’t look at the size of the bag. Chip manufacturers can make bags any size they want while keeping the weight of the chips relatively low for the vacuous sack in which they reside.

Instead of comparing the size of bags, compare a bag’s net weight, which must be printed on every bag. This number tells you precisely the weight of chips in the bag, regardless of the volume it occupies in the bag. You can divide the cost of the bag by the total net weight to find out which chips are best for your wallet.

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