Food Fact: Why are potato chip bags half empty?

There's nothing I find more irritating than opening a bag of chips and finding it nearly as empty as my stomach.

I was convinced that companies like Frito Lay were ripping us off, until I dug a bit deeper.

As it turns out, the extra space serves a purpose. It acts as a cushion that prevents chips from breaking while being shelved in grocery stores or delivered to grocery stores.

What's interesting is that, contrary to popular belief, the air puffing up those bags isn't oxygen -- it's nitrogen. Unlike the former, which makes the chips spoil and oil go rancid, nitrogen helps the snacks remain fresh. Studies show that roughly 80 percent of the air we breathe is made up of nitrogen, so consumers need not worry of any health risks.

The Fair Packaging and Label Act (1966) requires manufacturers to indicate the net weight of their products' contents. However, it seems the regulations are seldom enforced.

Human beings are notoriously inept at perceiving size. Even the most savvy shoppers incorrectly assume that larger bags translate to more product. What's worse, most of us neglect to look for the weight on the label.

If you like buying potato ships, your best bet is to only purchase them if and when they're on sale. At least you'll take comfort in the fact you're saving a few bucks, considering you're essentially buying half a bag's worth of nitrogen. Indeed, in this case at least, it's hard not to see the bag as half empty. (Excuse my pun.)

Have you noticed this when opening bags of chips? Does it annoy you to be getting so little product for your hard-earned money?

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