Coming soon to a recipe near you: shrinkflation

A recent article in The Guardian explained how Galaxy chocolate bars are now 10% smaller but priced the same as before, a strategy pundits have dubbed “shrinkflation” because in the end the result is the same as raising prices: less purchasing power for the consumer. The article reminded me of an issue that came up with a recipe I was making, where smaller product sizing came close to ruining the dish.

The recipe called for a certain amount of yogurt, which I knew from experience equaled one small container. However, when I mixed everything together the consistency didn’t seem right. After making sure I hadn’t omitted an ingredient, I took a look at the yogurt container and realized that from the time I first made the recipe to the present, the amount in the packaged had shrunk by over 1.5 ounces. It was just enough to cause a noticeable difference in the cake batter, although probably not enough to create a catastrophe. I was able to add more yogurt from another container so the cake turned out exactly as it should, but it did prompt me to look more closely at some of the other ingredients in my refrigerator and pantry.

Some differences were slight – canned items that used to be 14 ounces were now 13.2 ounces – while others were a bit more noticeable. Some brands of boxed breakfast cereal have reduced the net weight by nearly 15 percent. A website called Mouse Print has tracked shrinkflation on several items ranging from boxed cake mix to laundry detergent to pet food. The site also revealed an even sneakier way companies cut costs: a popular brand name of bottled salad dressing literally watered down its product, reducing the amount of vegetable oil and making up the difference with salt and water.

Almost all of the recipes I use provide weight measurements instead of calling for a can of this or that, which makes it easier to ensure that I am using the appropriate quantity. If I’m not careful, however, I might not buy enough of the product because what used to take a single container might now take two – and then I’ll have leftovers to deal with, meaning more potential for waste.

When the price of raw ingredients goes up, it’s difficult to blame companies for making these changes because consumers are more sensitive to price than almost anything else. I try not to let price be the sole factor in what I buy, agreeing with a quote attributed to 19th century poet and philospher John Ruskin (although it does not appear in his published works): “There is hardly anything in the world that someone cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price alone are that person’s lawful prey.”

In recent months, commodity prices have stabilized, so continued package downsizing seems to be more about squeezing extra profit from already overburdened consumers than about passing on legitimate cost increases. As long as people keep buying, however, there is no incentive for companies to stop. I will be keeping an eye on the fine print when shopping to avoid as much “shrinkflation” as possible.

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  • Monkeyhippy  on  September 29, 2023

    This has been happening for years. I have a cheap uncle who keeps track and makes a big deal of it every time he notices something coming in smaller packaging for the same price at the grocery store. This is why Ben & Jerry’s started saying “still a pint!” or whatever their tag line is – because most “pints” of ice cream aren’t pints anymore. It’s going getting worse and worse.

  • love2laf  on  September 29, 2023

    Here in Canada, what was a 454 gram (1 pound) bag of frozen shrimp I now saw advertised a 300 gram bag on sale. Curious if my olive oil poached in the oven recipe time will be affected by this, or if I have to buy multiple bags to make up the full pound. Frankly too disheartened by the three major grocery conglomerates making record level profits to do the research and testing.

  • TeresaRenee  on  September 29, 2023

    I’ve been noticing a lot of this. Small cartons of dairy used to be 250ml and now they are 235ml. A small difference but baking needs precise measurements.

    This is exacerbated by recipes that call for a box or can of an ingredient instead of giving the weight or volume.

  • gamulholland  on  September 29, 2023

    My husband has loved Pringles since childhood and is mildly outraged that what used to be an 8 oz can is now 5.5 oz. Not an ingredient, though. (Although he has a family reunion cookbook that might well have Pringles as an ingredient as a topping on casseroles, now that I think about it.)

  • averythingcooks  on  September 30, 2023

    I got caught by this last Christmas, making my mom’s snack mix. I know which cereal boxes to buy (ie regular vs family size) but never really looked at the mass of each box. As I always make a 1/2 recipe at a time, I did write down the mass to use for each batch. Weighing out the Shreddies, I quickly realized that my measured amount was far more than 1/2 the box. Not a terrible problem but had to purchase another box for batch 2 which also left me with an opened box of a cereal we don’t really eat (not to mention the increased cost of this recipe).

    I also purchased whole bean coffee a few months ago at a great price, only realizing at home that they were not actually 1 lb packages (even although the package itself certainly looked like it) and so they were not actually a “great” price at all.

    I am now much more careful looking at sizes of the products that I have been buying for years.

  • averythingcooks  on  September 30, 2023

    …and I just read a CBC Marketplace article citing common examples of this in Canada incuding bacon dropping from standard 500 g packages to 375 g (Costco’s Kirkland bacon is still in 500 g packages) AND milk/cream dropping from expected 250 mL/500 mL cartons to 237/473 mL(I have also been caught by this one before). My favourite was Red Rose tea…..same number of bags in the box but there is actually less tea in each individual bag. Red Rose explains this by saying they reformulated their bags to ensure fewer tea leaves will give a richer tea flavour. More than one commenter in the article mentioned that the new more porous bags often break in the pot.

  • bittrette  on  September 30, 2023

    I see what you did – you inclusivized the John Ruskin quotation. IMNSHO a direct quotation should be left as is – the quotation marks already tell you these are someone else’s words.

    • Darcie  on  September 30, 2023

      I was under the impression it was a direct quote but I now understand that it has only been attributed to him and does not appear in his work.

  • bittrette  on  September 30, 2023

    Your source, or the source’s source, seems to have inclusivized the quote, but it’s probably not Ruskin’s – see Quote Investigator.
    But to get back to “shrinkflation”:
    That has been going on for a long time – it’s what “downsizing” used to mean before it invariably meant a reduction in staff.
    And before that, when I was in my early teens, it was called “The Incredible Shrinking Candy Bar” in “A Mad Look at Packaging.” Mad magazine was Consumer Reports for us kids.
    As the rest of you observe, it’s worse. Worst IMO is the incredible shrinking tuna can – from 7oz to 5oz. If I’m just making tuna salad I now use 4 cans instead of 3.
    There’s also the incredible shrinking coffee can or bag – from a pound to 11 or 12oz.
    And the incredible shrinking pumpkin can. That’s why I switched from the Libby’s recipe for pumpkin pie to the Eagle SCM recipe – also on the Comstock can.
    It’s happened to non-food items as well. The incredible shrinking shampoo bottle. And sometimes, the incredible shrinking sticky note.

  • rabyll  on  September 30, 2023

    This has been an issue for a long time when using older recipes – even those as recent as the ’70s (which probably doesn’t seem as recent to most as it does to me), but particularly those from earlier years, when it can be very difficult to determine what size “a box” was then.

  • bittrette  on  September 30, 2023

    However much of a bother shrinkflation is, I’d rather the food companies skimped on quantity rather than quality. I’d rather have soup that is just as good as it used to be, even if there’s less of it, than have the same amount of soup that is not as good as it once was.

  • inflytur  on  October 2, 2023

    I agree with the other commenters who note that this is not new.
    Hence why I detest lazy authors who do not weigh or set volume for ingredients. What is a medium sized tomato, potato, or any other ingredient? The size of an individual chicken breast has almost doubled during my time cooking. And don’t get me started on ounces. How am I supposed to know if the author mean volume or weight?

  • KennethJames  on  October 6, 2023

    I totally disagree with this statement: “When the price of raw ingredients goes up, it’s difficult to blame companies for making these changes because consumers are more sensitive to price than almost anything else.” It is very much their fault. That have the preverbal ‘enterprising young man’ looking to show their wealth to the company. They are coming up with all kinds of ‘tricks’ to save money. Additionally, there are plenty of paywalls making suggestions and etc. So, yes, the consumer is left ‘holding the bag’ (which is increasingly getting emptier) on all of the prices and costs that they cannot ‘pass-on’ to others.

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