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Photographic Proof That Your Favorite Snacks Are Mostly Bags Of Air

But shouldn’t they be? It’s complicated.

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Nobody needs to eat more snack chips, but it can be disheartening to, in our moments of greatest gluttony, rip open a new bag of Doritos to see that it’s 86% air.

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It’s a phenomenon of prepackaged disappointment, explored by Brooklyn-based photographer Henry Hargreaves in his new series, Waste of Space. It’s another shot at the food industry. For his last project, he boiled down sweet drinks to sugary lollipops. For his latest, he went to his local BP gas station, grabbed some snacks, and brought them back to the studio. Then he dumped out the contents and vacuum-sealed them to compare the volume differences.

“Chips are a category that has always infuriated me,” he explains in his project summary. “You hold a puffy packet, then when you open it and let the air out, you are left with a tiny pile of chips at the bottom. I wanted to investigate this issue deeper to see who were the biggest pushes of expensive air and underwhelming contents while also creating the largest carbon footprint in transportation of the unwanted chip air.”

What he discovered in these personal-size bags of munchies is what you already knew: Most of it’s air (or, in reality, nitrogen, that helps keeps the chips fresh). But to see the numbers in pure percentages is staggering. Cape Cod chips are 87% air. Doritos, 86%. It’s enough to make Fritos, at just 64% air, sound reasonable, and Chex Mix, at 56% air, seem downright heroic.

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Henry Hargreaves

“I didn’t expect the results to be so extreme on the waste end,” he says. “I naively expected the worse offending brands would be about 50%, whereas the best value for volume didn’t even get there.”

When I asked Hargreaves the obvious counterpoint–wasn’t all that air there to protect the chips from being smashed?–he disagreed. “That was what I always thought, but there is so much air in there that they have more chance of being crushed while bouncing around in a big bag rather than a small one,” he argues. “When I vacuumed-sealed them, they were so much better protected for transportation and handling.” He points to Pringles, in particular, as leaving an odd gap near the top of the can that allows the chips to jostle.

The accusations are the sorts that only a producer like Frito-Lay–seeing the full life cycle of their product, from factory, to truck, to store shelf–would know for certain. But if you really find yourself wanting to get infuriated over superfluous packaging practices, go through the items in your bathroom and kitchen looking for the other ever-shocking first ingredient: water.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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