It’s not all work here at Polymer Solutions. For example, we recently took the Lay’s Potato Chip challenge and field tested the four flavored chips that are in the running to become the next addition to the Lay’s lineup. National voting goes on until Oct. 18, according to the Lay’s website, but the results are in for our office: Greektown Gyro captured the most votes, while West Coast Truffle Fries were a close second, New York Reuben a (very) distant third, and Southern Biscuits and Gravy didn’t even place.
How does the chip challenge relate to science? Aside from the complexities of seasonings and preservatives that go into creating a flavored chip, the taste-testers here were also thinking about the bag the chips are packaged in. As we’ve explored before in posts like “The case of cheese puffs vs polyester bags,” food packaging can have a significant impact on food taste, quality, longevity and marketability.
Something that seems as simple as a brightly colored plastic bag can actually be pretty complex. A chip bag needs to keep contaminants and moisture out — because no one wants to eat soggy chips. What’s more, it needs to do this without leaching any of its components into the contents — which could make the food taste and smell really bad, and expose consumers to some substances they don’t want to eat. Finally, it has to look good while doing all that.
A typical potato chip bag is made up of multiple layers of polymer materials: Biaxially Oriented Polypropylene (BOPP) on the inside, low-density polyethylene (LDPE) in the middle, another middle layer of BOPP, and an outer layer of Surlyn®, a thermoplastic resin. Each layer performs a specific function. BOPP is an excellent moisture barrier (so it keeps moisture away from chips), and it’s also resistant to oils and grease (so you don’t get chip grease on your fingers when you pick up the bag). LDPE is also resistant to vegetable oils, and both LDPE and Surlyn are strong and flexible but not unbreakable. This means your chip bag won’t burst if you drop it, but you can easily pull it open to get at the yummy stuff inside.
Of course, different chip makers have different packaging materials with varying combinations of polymers. And just as brands are constantly looking for new ways to improve the product, improving the packaging is also a never-ending process. Meanwhile all of this — the food and the packaging — is strictly regulated by the federal government.
Which brings us back to the humble team of taste-testers at Polymer Solutions. In addition to contributing our opinion of what the next great Lay’s flavor should be, our team does a lot of packaging testing to help ensure packaging — like chip bags — meets the needs of the food manufacturer, the expectations of their customers, and regulatory requirements. Tests like film layer analysis, material identification, CFR testing and failure analysis can help our clients better understand how their packaging material is performing, if it’s keeping their food as fresh and fine-tasting as possible, and if failure of the packaging itself is affecting the taste and quality of the food it contains.
The integrity of packaging material is critical to the overall success of the chip, because while Greektown Gyro may be a hit among our taste-testers, no one wants to snack on soggy, plastic-flavored potato chips!