What's in a name? Are Walkers Sensations Poppadoms a snack or a food?

After a year-long effort to protect the sanctity of its mini poppadoms, it is now crunch time for Walkers after a British First Tier Tribunal (FTT) ruled the snack brand will have to pay millions in tax every year.

Let’s chip back the covers and ponder the debate.

The finitude of definitions

Pic: GettyImages/Dilok Klaisataporn

It started in June 2021 when the HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) stated Walkers’ Sensations Poppadoms should be charged the standard snack tax rate.

According to HMRC, they are ‘products made from the potato or from potato flour or from potato starch’ – similar to potato crisps, sticks or puffs – and are ‘packaged for human consumption without further preparation’.

Walkers disagreed, arguing the nibbles are not the same as potato crisps and therefore shouldn’t be classified as a snack. Rather it’s a ‘modernized’ version of a popular Indian staple, typically eaten with a meal or with additions like chutney or dips – therefore requiring preparation.

For the law’s purposes, ‘food’ requires preparation and is intended to be eaten as part of something bigger. ‘Snacks’ can be enjoyed on their own.

It may sound like a trivial distinction, but the motivation to clarify this was to save hefty annual value added tax (VAT) fees. Where most food items are tax-exempt in the UK, the current VAT rate for snacks is 20%.

Walkers is not alone in debating the finitude of definitions.

HMRC lost the 1990s debate that McVitie’s Jaffa Cakes were biscuits, not cakes. Conversely, in 2008, Marks & Spencer claimed back £3.5m in overpaid VAT after a 12-year battle that its chocolate teacakes were cakes, not biscuits. And in 2022, a tribunal ruled that flapjack bars produced by Glanbia Milk are too chewy to be taxed as cakes.