Potato processing

Crisps, chips and starch: The demise of the traditional table potato

Unless it comes in the form of spicy potato crisps or thin, bite-sized chips, then the potato is considered rather unsophisticated, dull and homespun, quite simply old-fashioned.

Potato consumption has fallen more than any other agricultural product. In 1900 each German consumed on average 285 kilograms of potatoes per year (a potato mountain weighing almost one kilogram per person per day), today it amounts to 60 kilograms per year and more than 50 percent of that includes industrially processed products such as crisps, chips, powdered mashed potato or frozen gratin.

The fact that the consumption of table potatoes has declined only slowly since the 80s is due to the sharp rise in potato products such as crisps, chips and mash. The reunification of Germany in 1989 also pushed up consumption figures.

The industrial processing of potatoes in Germany
Industrial processing of potatoes has risen sharply. Whilst the dried fodder and schnapps distilling industries are in decline, in particular the food industry is thriving.

Source for the graphs: Landesstelle für landwirtschaftliche Marktkunde (LLM) Schwäbisch Gmünd, Agrarmärkte 2010/2011

Nowadays the potato is regarded as an “inferior product”; it is not particularly highly valued and it evokes memories of hardship. It even seems that potato consumption actually falls as income rises. At any rate, it has had its day as a staple food.

In contrast, the industrial processing of potatoes has continually increased. In 2010/2011, in Germany, a quarter of the potatoes were processed further to finished products, such as crisps, chips, dumpling flour, potato pancakes, etc. with an increasing tendency. Then demand for finished products was higher than that for fresh potatoes, which accounted for only 18 percent.

A significant fraction of the potato industry is involved in starch production. Starch is used today in the production of paper and cardboard, paste and glue, building materials and packaging and even for washing powder, tooth paste, tablets and much more. With nearly three million tons, more than six times as many potatoes are used today for starch production compared to 1970s. In Germany, in 2009/2010 almost 24 percent of potatoes were processed industrially to starch.

From potato schnapps to dried potato purée

Potato schnapps: The history of potato processing begins with potato schnapps, since even from the second half of the 18th century onward it became customary to convert the surplus potato harvest to brandy. However, it was only from the end of the 19th century to around the beginning of the Second World War that distilling potatoes to make schnapps really came into its own. In 1919 almost 80 percent of alcohol was produced from potatoes. Today, however, distilling has practically no relevance.

Chips and crisps: It is likely that chips were invented at around the same time as potato schnapps. Tradition has it that they originated in Belgium. The Belgians loved frying fish in liberal quantities of fat and when fish was in short supply one year, they promptly fried the side dish of potatoes instead. And so the potato chip was born. Of course it was not until much later, only after the Second World War, that chips were mass-produced as a ready-made product.

Crisps, on the other hand, are an American invention. However, it was a long time before they caught on in continental Europe. The first customers to demand potato crisps in Germany were the American soldiers stationed there in the early fifties.

Starch: As with all potato products, starch was initially produced in the home by very simple means. The large-scale extraction of starch from potatoes did not begin until the onset of industrialisation. Whereas wheat had been the principal source of starch prior to then, it was now the turn of the potato. In 1890 there were around eight hundred factories in Germany producing starch from potatoes. Starch saccharification even became a serious contender to beet sugar at the time.

Dried products: In 1894 the “Verein der Stärkeinteressenten in Deutschland” (German Association of Parties Interested in Starch) together with the “Verein der Spiritus-Fabrikanten in Deutschland” (German Association of Spirits Producers) finally began to think about how potatoes could be preserved. Competitions were organised to develop and put into practice new methods of drying potatoes. However, this met with only moderate success. Nobody showed much enthusiasm for dried potatoes and they were mainly used in animal feed until the fifties. Sales of dried potato products only increased during wartime and from 1933 to 1936 there was a mini boom when the government of the German Reich decreed that bakeries were to use 50 percent potato flour as a raw material. Even after the war, when the product range had increased considerably, dried potato products were unable to shake off their image as a poor man’s food.