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‘How do you reduce a national dish to a powder?’: the weird, secretive world of crisp flavours

Reuben and Peggy’s jobs are not top secret in the way top secret jobs usually are. They don’t have guns, for example – and the grey conference table they sit at is much the same as you’d find in any office in the UK. They even have LinkedIn profiles that tell you their job titles. But this is where things get odd: search the name of the company they work for – a name I have agreed not to print – and you’ll find little information about the work Reuben and Peggy do. You could click through every page on their company’s website and leave with no idea that it creates the most beloved crisp flavours in the world.

Reuben and Peggy are not their real names. Reuben is a snacks development manager and Peggy is a marketer, and they work for a “seasoning house”, a company that manufactures flavourings for crisps.

I meet the pair on Zoom, hoping they can answer a question that has consumed me for years. In January 2019, I was visiting Thailand when I came across a pink packet of Walkers with layered pasta, tomato sauce and cheese pictured on the front. Lasagne flavour, the pack said. You can’t get lasagne Walkers – or Lay’s, as they are known in most of the world – in Italy. Relatively speaking, Italians have a small selection of Lay’s – paprika, bacon, barbecue, salted and Ricetta Campagnola, a “country recipe” flavour featuring tomato, paprika, parsley and onion. I’ve sampled Hawaii-style Poké Bowl crisps in Hungary and chocolate-coated potato snacks in Finland; I have turned away from Sweet Mayo Cheese Pringles in South Korea. So why can you get lasagne flavour Lay’s in Thailand but not in Italy, home of the dish? Who figures out which country gets which crisps?

Walkers began manufacturing in Britain in 1948; it was acquired by the US crisp company Frito-Lay in 1989, and today Lay’s are available in more than 200 countries, from Argentina to Vietnam. Some varieties require little explanation – Poutine Lay’s are available only in Canada because the gravy-soaked chips are not Brazil’s national dish. Yet the crisp aisles of the world are stacked with mysteries. Why are Salt & Pepper Pringles favoured by Norwegians, and Oven-Roasted Chicken Doritos only available in Korea? Why does Europe love paprika so much? Pringles, like Lay’s, is not even a century old, yet its tubes are available in 80 countries. Both brands have conquered the world. With billions behind them, surely they know untold secrets about our national tastes and temperaments?

Peggy says that to understand why, for example, paprika crisps proliferate on German shelves, you have to understand immigration history. But I don’t hear her secrets until the end of my journey. First, I go to Leicester.

* * *

For more than 75 years, Leicester has been the place where British potatoes become crisps. Its Walkers factory produces 5m packets a day, steam billowing from behind big blue security gates. Just down the road sits its HQ, where 300 marketers, scientists and chefs decide which crisps the world needs next.

Emma Wood controls most of the world outside the US – at least when it comes to the taste of crisps. In 2017 – 12 years after she started working for Walkers’ parent company, PepsiCo – she was promoted to director of global flavour and seasonings, meaning it’s her job to develop flavours for Europe, Africa and Asia. It’s not a responsibility she takes lightly. “I know it’s not an expensive purchase,” she says over a conference table, multipacks of Wotsits lying between us, “but it’s really disappointing when you buy something for your lunch and it’s not what you wanted it to be.”

Actually, not everyone eats crisps at lunchtime – in France and southern Europe, they’re more of a pre-dinner snack with aperitifs. This is why Lay’s in the region are so light and simple; why there is a Mediterranean flavour that is essentially just oil and salt (so it doesn’t overpower any accompanying cocktails). And this is why innovating in Spain is often about offering new thicknesses, not new flavours.

Wood’s favourite flavour is salt and vinegar, but I think her personality is more prawn cocktail – sweet but punchy with her blond bob, floaty floral skirt and silver-studded trainers. In the past two decades, her work has taken her everywhere. Before Doritos launched in India five years ago, she took a “culinary trek” across the northern city of Lucknow, trying different pilaus, meats and breads from street food stalls. She relies on knowledge from local PepsiCo teams, so that if she says, “I think I can taste cardamom,” they can clarify: “It’s roasted green cardamom, actually.”

Doritos launched in India with the same cheese and chilli flavours we have in Britain, but a few years later Masala Mayhem was released in the region. Why does it take as many as seven years to launch a crisp?

It starts – as everything does now – on computers. Global development director Tom Wade says PepsiCo uses a tool that “slurps up” every restaurant menu on the internet. “You look at which ingredients are starting to feature; you can see the number of restaurants in Europe using smoked paprika, the incidence of black salt in restaurants in such and such a region,” he says.

This, incidentally, is why Walkers launched Thai Sweet Chilli Sensations in the UK in 2002. “That tipping point into the mainstream is very important for picking a big flavour,” Wade says. Crisp launches can act as a rough timeline of travel and immigration trends – only four Thai restaurants opened in the UK in the 1970s, but by 2003, there were 446. Today, Thai Sweet Chilli is one of the best-selling Walkers flavours in the UK.

Once the computers have done their job, the data makes its way to Wood. If she’s lucky, she can repurpose an existing flavour. In 2010, Lay’s launched Patatje Joppie in the Netherlands because of the nation’s love of Joppiesaus, a curried mayonnaise. Wood says the same flavour exists as Honey Mustard in other parts of the world. “We can play with the naming, because what you call something has a really big bearing on what people think it is.”

Prawn cocktail only really sells in the UK and Ireland, while salt and vinegar has spread everywhere except Norway and Italy

When a flavour is made from scratch, Wood goes to chef Pat Clifford, who spent 14 years in restaurants – including some with two Michelin stars – before moving into “ambient foods” (anything in the supermarket that isn’t chilled). Clifford’s “creative design kitchen” is clean and clinical. Bald, tall, bespectacled and wearing one smartwatch on each wrist, Clifford has a matter-of-fact way of speaking that brings to mind a crushed peppercorn crisp.

The chef fries some pointed peppers to demonstrate how he developed a flavour that was released in Spain in 2022. Despite traditionally being less adventurous with crisps, Spanish appetites have changed recently thanks to younger generations being exposed to different crisps on their travels (and on the internet). So Clifford collaborated with a TV chef to recreate some traditional dishes. “I went to work with Quique Dacosta in his restaurant in Spain. He showed me how he made this dish,” he says. The peppers are fried in charcoal-infused oil to give them a smoky flavour. The sharpness of the pepper cuts through in the real dish and the roasted wood-fired pepper with olive oil and garlic crisps.

PepsiCo works with local chefs to understand the nuances of different cuisines. Before Lay’s launched in Pakistan in 2007, the team researched the country’s “culinary worldview”. “What struck me as incredibly interesting was that in Pakistani cuisine there is an expectation that all flavours have the right spices that go with them,” Wade says. A tomato crisp wouldn’t taste like tomato and a cheese crisp wouldn’t taste like cheese unless paired with “the right blend of spices”. The company is evasive over email when asked what these spices are, but there are clues on its packets. Swiss Grilled Cheese Lay’s available in Pakistan, for example, have peppercorns and chilli pictured on the front. Spanish Tomato Tango Lay’s in India have pictures of chilli oil and cinnamon sticks. Even when customers crave a taste of the world, crisps are catered to local appetites.

It turns out there is one other crucial step in the process of creating a new flavour. With a mouth stuffed full of pepper in Clifford’s kitchen, I ask: “But how do you do it? How do you turn this dish into a powder?” That’s when I discover that they don’t. “We partner up with these big global flavour houses, seasoning houses,” Wood says, giving no names. When I get home and Google “seasoning house”, all it throws up is the title of a 2013 British horror film about an orphan who murders soldiers.

* * *

I hear about seasoning houses again in Mechelen, Belgium, known as the city of moon extinguishers. Its residents earned the nickname Maneblussers in 1687 after they planned to throw buckets of water at the cathedral, believing it was alight – in actual fact, the red glow of the moon was shining through its windows.

Just 15 minutes’ drive from the cathedral sits a 27-year-old Pringles factory that smells like a chip shop. It runs all day, every day, even at Christmas, and produces 100,000 tonnes of Pringles annually. Almost a third of its output goes to the UK. “We only stop the line on a need basis,” plant director Johan Van Batenburg says over a dramatically soundtracked promotional video.

There are six lines in the plant; the paprika line is covered in a thin layer of orange dust. I watch rolled dough that smells like pasta being cut into Pringles’ signature shape, the hyperbolic paraboloid. The chips are fried in a machine so hot that humidity is visible in the air. They move so quickly under a waterfall of seasoning that they become a blur. Most of the crisps here are seasoned with original or sour cream and onion flavours – the top two “in almost all markets” except Russia, where crab took second place. Before Russia invaded Ukraine, Pringles counted both countries as one market – they were only split after Pringles stopped supplying Russia in 2022.

In Asia, Pringles uses a Tinder-like tool with 200 consumers at a time, asking them to swipe left or right on potential flavours

Crisps and geopolitics go hand in pack. Before Russia was cut off, Russia was Pringles’ second biggest market, and its might meant it could make demands. This is how it ended up with speciality seasonings such as mushroom and cream, as well as parmesan with black pepper (a flavour not available to Italians). “They had the volume, so they could request special flavours because we have a minimum order quantity,” says Gert Peremans, a salty snacks research and development director at Kellanova – formerly Kellogg’s – Pringles’ parent company.

In Europe, Pringles has 34 active flavours in seven can sizes (one of which is called “David” for reasons no one can explain). Not all of these flavours are available in every European country – prawn cocktail only really sells in the UK and Ireland, while bacon is found in most places except Belgium, the Netherlands and strongholds of vegetarianism Austria, Denmark and Sweden. Salt and vinegar has spread everywhere except Norway and Italy. “They don’t have the habit of doing vinegar on their crisps; they just eat them plain with salt,” says Julie Merzougui, lead food designer at Kellanova. If an employee in Italy wanted to explore bringing salt and vinegar to the market, they could – they’d simply have to ask. As of yet, they haven’t.

Multiple times a year, Pringles releases limited-edition flavours known internally as “insanely accurate analogues” – Merzougui and Peremans come up with these for Europe. “People think we have the dream job,” Merzougui says (she has dark hair, round glasses and an easy laugh, a personality akin to an experimental flavour – perhaps a chorizo Pringle). Peremans, who has worked at the company for 26 years, has a salt and pepper beard and a Salt & Shake personality. He speaks quietly and pragmatically, but has a subtle playful streak: “My young son, he wants to become my successor.”

Like Lay’s, Pringles starts with data – in Asia, the company uses a Tinder-like tool with 200 consumers at a time, asking them to swipe left or right on potential flavours. Lucia Sudjalim, a senior Pringles developer in Asia, says she does a lot of “social media listening”, observing trends among influencers and bloggers. Kellanova also uses AI, which Merzougui says can predict trends up to 10 years in advance. Things aren’t always this sophisticated though – both Lay’s and Pringles also look at what’s on the shelves in countries they want to break into, copying flavours and identifying gaps to fill.

Yet just because the world wants a flavour doesn’t mean it’s made. In December 2020, scotch egg sales soared in the UK after Conservative ministers ruled the snack a “substantial meal” (providing punters with an excuse to be in the pub under Covid-19 lockdown rules). Peremans was challenged to make scotch egg Pringles and pulled it off; Merzougui says they tasted “really authentic”. Ultimately, however, the potential order volume was not high enough to justify a production run. (This, incidentally, is why it’s hard to get Salt & Pepper Pringles in the UK, even though they’re delicious.)

Another unreleased flavour was part of a collaboration with Nando’s that petered out for reasons Peremans is unsure about. Sometimes, logistics get in the way: the perfectly blended seasoning might clog the machines or create too much dust, causing sneezing fits in the factory. Belgian legislation mandates that every seasoning has to be put through a dust explosion test – it is set alight in controlled conditions to ensure it won’t blow up.

Inside the plant, manager Van Batenburg shows me giant cube-shaped bags of seasonings that arrive ready to be cascaded on to the crisps. At the end of his video presentation, he made a passing comment that rocked my world. We were talking about other crisp companies, big name competitors. “In essence,” he said, “they’re using the same seasoning houses we do.”

* * *

I leave Belgium with the names of three seasoning houses Pringles work with. At home, I discover that their websites are obscure – they speak of flavours and trends, but don’t even mention Pringles. I haven’t so much stumbled upon a conspiracy as been invited into it, but I am still shocked. After two months’ cajoling by the Pringles team, two representatives from a seasoning house agree to speak – but only on the condition of total anonymity, in line with their contractual obligations.

“It’s quite secretive,” food scientist Reuben admits via Zoom, wearing a pink shirt and a thoughtful expression (the only crisp I can compare him to is a Quaver). “Everyone has their own crown jewels that they protect.”

As a marketer, Peggy has always found the company’s secrecy “strange”. She speaks clearly, in a way that is reminiscent of a teacher or a steadfast multigrain snack. “It’s always been a bit of a puzzle to me … I was like, ‘Why aren’t we shouting about this?’ But I was told, ‘Oh, no, we have to keep it very quiet.’”

This is because – just as Van Batenburg hinted in Belgium – the seasoning house Reuben and Peggy work for provides flavours for Pringles and Lay’s, as well as other brands. When asked whether their clients know, Reuben says, “They do and they don’t.” “It’s just not really talked about,” Peggy adds. However, this doesn’t mean that a Salt & Vinegar Pringle is flavoured with the same seasoning as a Salt & Vinegar Lay’s. In fact, the seasoning house is strictly siloed to guarantee exclusivity. Reuben’s team work on the Pringles account; the team making flavours for PepsiCo is in an entirely different country. “So the recipe, if you will, of the Pringles salt and vinegar can’t be seen by the other team,” Reuben says.

How exactly do they come up with these formulations; how do you reduce a national dish to a powder? Let’s say a client comes to Reuben wanting a tagine crisp. First, Reuben identifies the “gold standard” tagine. Depending on the intended market, this isn’t always about authenticity – when a client requested a katsu curry flavour, Reuben ordered from Wagamama because market data told him British consumers like their take on the dish best.

After identifying the key ingredients, Reuben can’t simply copy them in powdered form. Onions in a tagine have been slow-cooked, for example, so onion powder alone doesn’t work. And powdered lamb is out – many meat-flavoured crisps are vegetarian. Some crisps contain vegetable proteins that have been hydrolysed (broken down into their components) to produce a meat-like taste. Other times, MSG or a flavour enhancer known as “Disodium 5’-ribonucleotides” is added to create an umami taste.

Reuben describes his work as part science and part art, likening an unseasoned Pringle to a blank canvas on which he paints

A lab of “flavour chemists” create the flavour compounds that Reuben mixes into seasonings. Because textures can’t be recreated on a crisp – “if you look at a tagine, it’s saucy, it’s wet, it’s warm” – Reuben uses different “sensates”, compounds that provoke heating, tingling, cooling or salivating sensations. Conventional ingredients such as salt, sugar and spices are also used.

Reuben describes his work as part science and part art, likening an unseasoned Pringle to a blank canvas on which he paints. “You have your base notes, which will be your salt and your sugar,” he says. “And then you start layering that with different types of molecules and aroma chemicals, or the actual flavours in liquid or encapsulated formats.” Vinegar often can’t be sprayed as a liquid; because its flashpoint is below the boiling point of water, the flavour would evaporate when cooked on a crisp. Instead, vinegar is often crystalised.

It can take Reuben’s team 12 attempts going back and forth with clients to get a flavour exactly right; then pre-launch consumer feedback must be factored in. Seasoning houses must also consider legal regulations – the perfect tagine flavour mix might exceed recommended salt allowances, while EU regulations limit the amount of cinnamon extract and capsicum that can be used.

Keeping abreast of this is difficult for Pringles’ product developer Sudjalim, who is responsible for Australia, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. “It is not like one EU or one United States; all the different countries have different compliance requirements,” she says. She also has to understand subtle consumer feedback. “In-person interaction is particularly important for Japan. Because of the culture, body language and facial expression can be more telling than the actual spoken words,” she explains. She has noticed Japanese testers might say that a crisp is good before pushing the plate away – she then knows to press them to say more.

Sudjalim’s market is very varied. “Even within south-east Asia, there are 10 countries, and between the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia – they all have different taste preferences,” she says. She has found people in Indonesia like “sweet meaty things”. While people in the Philippines also enjoy this, they like to add vinegar. Thailand enjoys heat. Even a single country can be split. In Japan, the same curry can vary from prefecture to prefecture, so that one is more tomatoey, one is sweeter and one is hotter. Sudjalim considers them all to create the “optimised” curry Pringles.

We’re just as nuanced in Europe. Even something as simple as a barbecue crisp can vary dramatically, Reuben says. British people like them sweet and acidic, Germans prefer them spicier and drier, while Spaniards want a sweet, smoky flavour with less vinegar.

If you were to simplify how the globe looks through the eyes of a potato crisp, the whole thing is divided down the middle – and one side is labelled “cheese” and the other “fish”. The top-selling Walkers in the UK are cheese and onion flavour, while in Vietnam and Thailand they’re crab and seaweed. (Reuben says “fish does not translate on to a snack” for most European consumers.)

The most experimental country is China, where Lay’s have released beer flavour and rose petal crisps, as well as “sensorial” ranges that numb, cool and fizz. Wade says this experimentation is driven by the country’s love of e-commerce, with shopping websites integrated into social media. “Because of that, you have products that trend and bubble up very, very fast.” Walkers developer Wood puts it another way: “If you’ve got 1.4 billion people, someone’s bound to like it.”

“Europe is simply not ready for sweet food crisps,” says Pringles designer Merzougui. And while people around the globe think they like spicy food, Mexico is the only country that really does, so chilli Doritos have to be made spicier there. Meanwhile, she says, “even the tiniest level of heat” is too much for Russia.

Sudjalim says the Japanese love gift giving, meaning souvenir Pringles are launched there regularly. She considers Korea to be “very adventurous” – cola, butter caramel and yoghurt flavours are available there. “Don’t frown,” she insists when I react to the last one. “It’s not bad!”

Hend Kovermann, a Pringles manager who oversees 27 markets in Europe, says the Nordics are “progressive”, while central European markets are “less exposed, less international, less adventurous”. France, according to Merzougui, is “focusing more and more on health”, while Germans enjoy vegetarian flavours. “And most of all paprika. They just love a lot of paprika.” There are three different paprika Pringles in Germany – sweet, classic and grilled. Why is the flavour so beloved?

“It’s historical,” Peggy says. “People who’ve moved over from other parts of Europe into Germany have brought their paprika from eastern Europe and Hungary. They use it a lot in their cooking, and there’s been migration through to Germany.” Between the end of the second world war and the millennium, 20 million people migrated to the west of Germany, some of them Aussiedlers, Germans returning home from eastern Europe. Today, paprika remains a key ingredient in German cooking.

Despite our differences, globalisation is bringing rapid change. While Indian customers might have historically wanted cinnamon in their Spanish Tomato Tango crisps, Sudjalim says Japanese customers want London Style Fish & Chips Pringles to be authentic; they want to be reminded of their travels. Pringles launched a travel-inspired Passport Flavours range in 2020. Now, Japanese customers can munch on New York Style Cheeseburger flavour, while Brits can try Greek Style Tzatziki.

For 23 years, Elizabeth D’Cunha has worked as a food anthropologist (or “trends application guru”) for PepsiCo. “Flavour acceptance,” she says, is now higher, “due to increased access to unique flavours from other cultures”. Much of this is driven by millennials who were exposed to global foods while young. D’Cunha didn’t try sushi until she was 14 years old. “My 14-year-old child has never not known sushi and can buy it from one of four restaurants within half a mile of our house,” she says. D’Cunha believes that as gen Z ages, we will find “more authentically flavoured snacks in mainstream shops”.

For now, authenticity isn’t everything – in Thailand, I also saw chilli squid, grilled prawns and seafood sauce flavours, crisps England still doesn’t seem ready for. What about the lasagne? How did it end up there? That’s partly to do with the size of supermarkets in Thailand.

“They have a lot of convenience store chains in Thailand. You’ll notice supermarkets are really small, the space is very tight,” PepsiCo’s Tom Wade explains. Therefore, Lay’s constantly swap in new limited-edition flavours, rather than lining the shelves with different varieties. “In the same way that we might find an exciting limited flavour in the UK to be Indian or Thai, something Italian is exciting and new to a Thai consumer,” Wade says.

Crucially, however, the expectations of what lasagne should taste like are not as high for a Thai consumer as an Italian. After all, there’s a reason we don’t eat shepherd’s pie crisps. “An Italian would think: how can a crisp taste of authentic mother’s lasagne?” Wade says. Peggy puts it another way: “They’d just think it was horrendous if you put something like lasagne on a potato chip!”