Why Sneaky Package Size Reductions are No Longer Fooling Consumers

The Honeybee will tell you that this guy and I have at least one thing in common.

Not too long ago I was preparing a recipe from an old cookbook that called for a couple of 7-ounce cans of tuna.

After looking in the pantry, I was happy to see that I had exactly two cans of tuna — until I remembered that tuna was one of the many products affected by shrinking package sizes, thanks to manufacturers trying to maintain market share by keeping their product prices stable.

Sure enough, my tuna cans held just five ounces each. So, unwilling to make my casserole with 29% less tuna than the recipe called for, I reluctantly hauled myself off to the supermarket for an additional can. I know.

This isn’t the first time I’ve run into trouble when an old recipe called for an ingredient based upon an older product size standard. Awhile back I was preparing a cookbook recipe that called for 28 ounces of spaghetti sauce, but the jar I had only contained 23.9 ounces.

(And, folks, please save your admonishments regarding spaghetti sauce in a jar. Yes, I understand it’s culinary sacrilege — especially for a proud American of Italian heritage such as myself — but sometimes I get caught without any leftover sauce in the freezer, and no time to whip up a fresh batch. I digress.)

As long as food and other commodity prices are rising faster than consumer wages, manufacturers will continue to be faced with the dilemma of either raising prices and losing customers, or shrinking their package sizes and hoping nobody notices. Of course, more often than not, the manufacturers will choose the latter option. Sneaky buggers.

Unfortunately for the manufacturers, the longer this practice goes on, more and more people will eventually discover they’re being deceived — especially the ones who enjoy using old cookbooks.

How small have packages become over the years? Quite a bit. Here are two dozen examples of shrinking product sizes (both specific and general) to prove my point:

  • Ragu spaghetti sauce (Was: 28 oz.; Now: 23.9 oz.)
  • StarKist tuna (Was: 6 oz.; Now: 5 oz.)
  • Anthony egg noodles (Was: 16 oz.; Now: 12 oz.)
  • Coast soap (Was: 4.5 oz.; Now: 4.0 oz.)
  • Canned vegetables (Was: 16 oz.; Now: 14.5 oz.)
  • Yogurt (Was: 8 oz.; Now: 6 oz.)
  • Tropicana orange juice (Was: 64 fl. oz.; Now: 59 fl. oz.)
  • Tropicana orange juice (Was: 96 fl. oz.; Now: 89 fl. oz.)
  • Scott toilet paper (Was: 115.2 sq. ft.; Now: 104.8 sq. ft.)
  • Frito-Lay chips “Family Size” bag (Was: 16 oz.; Now 14 oz.)
  • Haagen Dazs ice cream (Was: 16 fl. oz.; Now: 14 fl. oz.)
  • Kraft American cheese (Was: 24 slices; Now: 22 slices)
  • Skippy peanut butter (Was: 18 oz.; Now 16.3 oz.)
  • Hebrew National franks (Was: 12 oz.; Now 11 oz.)
  • Kirkland Signature paper towels (Was: 96.2 sq. ft.; Now: 85 sq. ft.)
  • Snickers “King size” candy bar (Was: 3.7 oz.; Now: 3.29 oz.)
  • Ivory dish detergent (Was: 30 fl. oz.; Now: 24 fl. oz.)
  • Country Crock margarine (Was: 48 oz.; Now: 45 oz.)
  • Breyer’s ice cream (Was: 64 oz.; Then: 56 oz.; Now: 48 oz.)
  • Chicken of the Sea salmon (Was: 3 oz.; Now: 2.6 oz.)
  • Bounty 2-ply paper towels (Was: 138 sheets; Then: 128 sheets; Now: 121 sheets)
  • Mayonnaise (Was: 32 oz.; Now: 30 oz.)
  • Coffee (Was: 16 oz.; Then: 15 oz.; Then: 13 oz.; Now: 10 oz.)
  • Kellogg’s Apple Jacks (Was: 11 oz. ; Now: 8.7 oz.)

How You Can Fight Back

Pay attention to those labels! Instead of focusing on the item price listed on the supermarket shelves, look at the unit price. Comparing unit prices is the easiest way to figure out the best deal when evaluating different package sizes.

Don’t be afraid to try the store brand. Buying store-brand products can save you as much as 60%. And as many of my blind taste test experiments have shown, it’s often hard to discern taste and quality differences between name- and store-brand products — especially when you’re using those products in recipes.

Buy more fresh food. You can reduce your risk of becoming a victim of stealth inflation by eating more fresh foods like fruits, vegetables, and even eggs. After all, the only way the shrinking-package phenomenon could ever affect the price of eggs or, say, a bunch of bananas, is if the powers that be redefine a dozen to be equal to 11, or decide to reduce the number of ounces in a pound from 16 to 15.

Then again, at the rate we’re going, that day may actually be closer than you think.

Photo Credit: jcoterhals

Comments

  1. 1

    says

    I write about this all the time on my blog. It’s one of my pet peeves but there’s really no way to stop it. Ice cream is the one that pops into my head as the biggest change. Used to be a typical size was half gallons (2 quarts), then they cut it to 1.75 quarts, and then 1.5 quarts. Pretty much everyone has followed suit.

    I was very disappointed on my last Costco trip to see that they even fall into the trap with their Kirkland products. I bought a 12 pack of paper towel, saw that they changed the labeling, and was immediately suspicious. Compared the rolls to some that we still had, and sure enough, the old rolls had 90 sheets and the new rolls had 80 sheets. They effectively cut a roll and a half out of what you get.

    • 2

      Len Penzo says

      I’m happy to say that one ice cream company that still sells their product in full pints (16 oz.) is Ben & Jerry’s.

      Now pass me the Chunky Monkey! :-)

  2. 3

    says

    It’s ridiculous really. It makes you think back of the old days when everything’s so big and so cheap. But now, you get half the size for the same price. Ridiculous! But I guess we need to accept that change. Prices of commodities will rise.

    • 4

      Len Penzo says

      It is ridiculous, KC! I realize prices will rise, but I’d prefer they simply raise the price and drop the deception.

    • 6

      Len Penzo says

      I thought so, but I couldn’t confirm that, Kerri. For what it’s worth, the store-brand frozen green beans in my freezer are in a 16 oz package — so those haven’t been bitten by the shrinking package bug. Yet.

  3. 7

    says

    I do mental Math. When I am at the grocery store, I look for comparable things that give me a bang for my buck. But like you pointed out, there are many items that you just have to follow the manufacturer weight. When one starts reducing size, everyone else follows. And that’s the problem for consumers.

  4. 8

    says

    I hate it from the value point of view, but I actually like the smaller packages. We don’t have a lot of space at home and smaller packages take up less space. We don’t buy much processed food either so it’s not a big deal.
    I hear you about the recipe though.

    • 10

      Len Penzo says

      Speaking of candy bars, Larry …

      Did you know that the price of a Hershey bar was five cents from 1921 until 1969, when the price doubled to 10 cents? It’s true. During that 48-year period, the price didn’t change, but the weight of the bar did many times — and in both directions! — fluctuating between a low-point of 0.75 ounces (in 1968) and 2.0 ounces (in 1930).

      You can see all the dirty details about the fluctuating prices and package sizes of selected products like Hershey bars, Kellogg’s corn flakes and other stuff at The Food Timeline. Here is the link for those who are interested:

      http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodfaq5.html

  5. 11

    says

    Well on the eggs front, we have even seen the continental disease of selling them in 10’s creeping across the Channel!

    I haven’t noticed the changes so much over here – I think it may have something to do with legislation although equally I haven’t checked out our tuna stocks recently!

    But you make a good point over manufacturers trying to get one over everyone. That is their purpose after all – to make a profit. If some poor sucker buys a smaller tin without realising it, they are the eponymous sucker!

    The best solution is of course fresh food every time!

    • 12

      Len Penzo says

      Eggs being sold in bunches of 10. Say it ain’t so, John! Then again … I said it wouldn’t be too long before that day got here.

      (I’d ask you whether a pound still 16 ounces in the UK, but you folks went to the metric system a long time ago.)

  6. 14

    says

    At first I thought, I was not affected since there was no price increase. Eventually, I realized that the price did not move up because they made the packaging smaller and reduced the content. So, that’s the catch! Now, I do the some mental math before purchasing an item to see which product will gives better quality at lower price per gram or ounce.

  7. 15

    says

    It’s terrible just how many items this happens on. What really annoys me is when they reduce something to about 1/3 of the size and then come out with a new product that was the same size as the original item, but now double the cost.
    I see it all the time with chips, drinks and pizza.

    • 16

      Len Penzo says

      Pizza, huh? Glen, you aren’t suggesting the pizzerias in your neck of the woods are going from eight slices in a pie to six, are you? ;-)

      Recently, there were reports that Subway — a sandwich shop here in the States — selling “footlong” subs that were actually only 11 inches long.

      I haven’t been able to confirm that though, and Subway denies it is being done purposely.

  8. 17

    says

    I worked part-time in a grocery store and you can bet a lot of times when the packaging changes, so does the size. I also look at the price per unit for regular sizes and usually buy the better value.

  9. 18

    lucy says

    in the same vein, i used to buy 6 cans of the small 5 oz v-8 juice packs for my elderly mother. used to buy it for $2.89 per 6 pack.. then all of a sudden the next week, it went up to $3.35 per 6 pack and they slapped a big yellow and black sign under it saying NEW LOW PRICE!!! .. after i got thru laughing, i got mad and went to buying the generic 48 ounce cans.. arg…

  10. 19

    Lizbeth says

    Actually, Costco still sells the 7-oz. cans of tuna. I have a couple in my pantry right now.
    And I read mouseprint.org every Monday to see the latest shrinking packages and tiny print exclusions.

  11. 21

    Del says

    I was just complaining about this to my husband, boxed cake mixes have been cut to 15.25 oz instead of 18.25 oz. So it now takes 6 boxes to make 5 cakes. I have a lot of recipes that call for cake mixes. Also want to thank you for your website,I enjoy it very much

  12. 23

    Scott says

    I remember awhile back when an executive of a food company was asked about the smaller packaging, and his response was that they were making these changes due to the desires of their consumers. I don’t think the interviewer bought it.
    As others have already mentioned, using unit price can help deal with size changes.

    • 25

      Len Penzo says

      I was wondering how long it would take someone to ignore my admonishment about admonishing me. ;-)

  13. 26

    deRuiter says

    Besides eggs being 10 to the dozen in Europe, all the food packages are smaller and the prices higher. Cook more from scratch, plant that vegetable garden, can the extra tomatoes for winter use, coupon, watch the unit prices, use the leftovers, compost the rest or get a few chickens. America STILL has much cheaper food prices than Europe, but with the current Socialst direction of our government, the prices will continue to rise until we too spend a larger portion of our income on food, as large as the Europeans, who marvel at the selection and low prices of the “average” American grocery store.

  14. 27

    says

    Len, I love the pic! That’s hilarious! You point out something that is so annoying in todays world. The 12 oz “pound” of coffee, the bag of chips that is 80% air. How about the “Makers Mark” bourbon that is getting watered down to 70 proof (I think)? I’d rather pay the full price and get the full amount!

    • 28

      Len Penzo says

      Yes, Jose, I should have included the Makers Mark bourbon. That one totally slipped my mind! I’m with you, I’d prefer the full price / full strength whiskey, than the watered down stuff too. I still can’t get my head around the decision they made.

  15. 29

    Jonathan Fraser says

    Maker’s Mark reversed their proposed change to their signature proof.

    Garden – Food Co-op – Purchase and prepare in bulk, then freeze or package for the week – Purchase by clear Unit Prices or I will not purchase at all.

    Sometimes I believe that I am avoiding much of the “gouging” if not all of the “inflation”.

    * * *

    Inflation is not inevitable, folks, continue to promote your local purchasing with those businesses with whom you retain a “voice” and some “influence”.

    Look for ‘B’ Corporations, too … as alternative economies … and valuing human labor and natural resources are essentially to a healthy economy and our current capitalism doesn’t.

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