No profit grows, Shakespeare wrote, where no pleasure is taken. So, in the tedious march of life, we find joy in the little things: the sunrise. A good glass of wine. The greasy smack of a loaded potato chip.
But sweet ! Not so fast. Life offers no simple pleasures, and even this delicious crunch comes with a weighty debate: how many potatoes are in a real potato chip – chips, for Americans?
This and several other in-depth questions of the crisp lover – was immortalized by a British tax appeal court last week, which ruled that Walkers Sensations Poppadoms, the soft, non-crispy potato medallions, are, in fact, the same as potato chips.
Thus, we add to the hallowed list of existential debates about food, whose moral implications far outweigh the consumable utility of their subjects. Among them: Is one Jaffa Cake a cake or a cookie? Does Chicago-style pie count as pizza? Is a hot dog a sandwich? Do you prefer Wawa over Sheetz, or are you wrong?
The ruling means that Walkers, the company that makes poppadoms and dozens of other snacks, will have to pay the same value added tax on its poppadoms as it does on its various crisps. More importantly, a trial judge has recorded for all those who love men and chips the kind of diktat that is sure to disproportionately irritate the masses.
“Food is probably one of the most visceral and powerful ways to express cultural identity,” said Dr. Ty Matejowsky, professor of anthropology at the University of Central Florida. As such, he said, the court’s decision is unlikely to change anyone’s opinion on the matter.
The Walkers crisps label has distinct similarities to American crisps brand Lays and also distributes Doritos in Britain. This is because they are all owned by Pepsico, which has retained the Walkers brand in Britain and Ireland. The label is different, but it is actually the same chip.
A poppadom, an anglicized version of Indian “papadum”, is a flat, crusty, circular flatbread, usually made with gram flour. Traditionally, they are about the size of a tortilla. Walkers, however, adapted the design to a smaller shape, closer to the size of a crisp, which they introduced using a Sikh Elvis impersonator in the late 1980s.
The Walkers dispute bears an uncanny resemblance to the big Pringles decision of 2008, when a British High Court judge ruled that the ubiquitous canned snacks also qualify as crisps, despite tax arguments to the contrary.
At the heart of the debate is whether poppadoms are food or a snack. For the purposes of the law, “food” requires preparation and is intended to be consumed as part of something larger. “Snacks” are effective formulas that can be enjoyed alone. Like, say, a bag of chips.
This may seem like a trivial distinction, but when it comes to UK tax law, it is no trivial matter. While most food items are tax-exempt, the current value-added tax rate for snacks like chips is 20 percent, bringing the potential stakes in Walker’s poppadom game into the millions.
“It’s a lot of money for the government,” said Dr Catherine Clarke, a lecturer in law at the University of Exeter. “This is all really stupid. But that’s where we are.
This decision is the latest in a long adventure for Walkers, which has been claiming since 2021 that its Poppadoms Sensations are not the same as their crispy potato cousins, and therefore should be tax-exempt like most other foods.
According to Walker’s lawyers, there are many reasons why a poppadom is not a crisp. For starters, they are meant to be eaten with other things like chutney or dips – or, one might say, prepared. And any “ordinary person on the street” would know that they are not the same thing. Perhaps more importantly, Walkers argued, the types of potato starch and granules used to make poppadom should not be considered potato ingredients, by purist standards.
Unfortunately for Walkers, the court was not moved by the company’s case. Poppadoms may not contain as much potato as a traditional crisp, the judge said, but the appropriate ratio of potato, poppadom and crisps is in the eye of the beholder.
“The products,” the judge wrote, “obviously contain potatoes.”
It’s a narrow decision – no thanks to Walkers, whose lawyers almost took the proverbial poppadoms ship down with them. Many potato-free poppadoms, according to the company, were exempt from VAT in the UK.
But the affair, like so many others, fell because of the flesh of the potato.
“The fact that a poppadom made according to a traditional recipe from chickpea flour without potatoes is zero-rated for VAT purposes does not mean that a poppadom made according to a traditional recipe which includes potatoes must also be zero-rated,” the judge said. “The first is not excluded because it is a ‘poppadom’, but rather because it does not contain potatoes.”
Walkers, which did not respond to a request for comment on the verdict, has eight weeks to appeal. Until then, the law has spoken. Spiritually, this could be a poppadom. But legally – at least for now – it’s a chip.