by Marion Nestle
Mar 29 2011

Easiest way to cut calories: smaller packages!

In an effort to avoid having to raise prices and lose competitive advantage, the makers of processed foods are putting less food—and more air—in the packages.  The New York Times calls this “stealthy downsizing.”

In every economic downturn in the last few decades, companies have reduced the size of some products, disguising price increases and avoiding comparisons on same-size packages, before and after an increase. Each time, the marketing campaigns are coy; this time, the smaller versions are “greener” (packages good for the environment) or more “portable” (little carry bags for the takeout lifestyle) or “healthier” (fewer calories)….Most companies reduce products quietly, hoping consumers are not reading labels too closely.

I’d call it “healthy downsizing!”   A great way to cut calories!

  • Subvert

    Wouldn’t want to alert people that anything in the world is going on, like inflation or something…

  • I’m the lady in the article, and I don’t think it’s healthy. How is it healthy to pay the same amount of money for 12 oz of frozen broccoli as we used to pay for 16 oz? People already complain that they can’t afford to eat healthy food and the sneaky price increases just reinforce that idea. You feed your family the 12 oz. bag and you’re still hungry after- not realizing there is actually less in the bag, concluding instead that health food isn’t filling.

  • An interesting way of looking at what appears to be corporate giants yet again squeezing more profits from our wallets. Thanks for the article.

  • Jim Matorin

    I am always amused since I am a classically trained CPG marketer the games manufacturers play with packaging and sizing. Now that I am on the restaurant side of the business, I am waiting to see how operators handle their rising food costs.

  • Anthro

    I definitely agree that smaller packages of TREATS is a healthy way to go in packaging. But simply reducing the contents of a product such as a can of corn or a box of tampons, while maintaining (or raising!) the price is simply hidden inflation.

    If Milehimama really is the lady in the article, I would ask her why on earth she has nine children? But since she does, I would suggest buying fresh broccoli–it tastes better anyway.

  • I buy frozen broccoli because it’s much more economical and I can store it longer than fresh.

    I have nine children because… well, really you don’t need me to explain the birds and bees to you, do you?

  • This is nothing but the manufacturers trying to maintain constant profit by passing their increasing costs (inflation, price gouging, world economy, etc) on to the consumer.

    I hate it just as much as the next person (hey, I buy groceries too), but it’s either pay $6 for a normally $5 box of cookies, or continue to pay $5 but for a slightly smaller box of cookies.

    It’s a lose-lose situation. We can’t expect corporate America to eat the cost of inflation for us.

  • The best way to avoid being ripped off by package manipulation is to learn to calculate PER UNIT cost. Many stores do have the unit cost on the shelf tag but it is small and often hard to find. If you know exactly what you are paying per pound or per ounce, it is much easier to compare brands and not fall for the latest marketing gimmicks. Here is a great article on calculating unit costs…

  • KateR

    I agree that this is an oddly positive way to look at a deceptive business practice. Ideally, of course, people would just quit processed foods.

  • Time to vent: I hate that Breyer’s half gallon of natural ice cream is not–neither a half gallon size anymore, or the old 5 ingredients. Now, interestingly, the calories are lower because of the addition of guar gum or some other fillers. I hate that the new norm for yogurts is 6 oz, less than a calcium serving, vs the old 8 oz. and, at the same price. And I struggle with the fact that people assume that because snacks now come in 100 calorie packs, that that is magically the appropriate snack size for people of all sizes, in all situations, at all times!

    Thanks for prompting this therapeutic vent!

  • Atwater Flinch

    That’s the great thing about snacks like apples and oranges; you know what size you are getting and cost per pound right away.

  • Anthro

    I certainly know all about the birds and the bees–and how to control them. It’s your business how many offspring you have, of course, but it will cost more to feed them. That is a separate issue from deceptive packaging, though.

    How long do you need to store broccoli when you are feeding ELEVEN people? And how is it more economical? I’ll have to look into that, because I have yet to find a packaged product of any quality that is cheaper than buying in bulk.

  • JudyThomas

    Hey folks, an individual’s life choices and number of children is not up for debate here. The writer is having trouble feeding 11 economically and healthfully and I empathize, even though I only have 1. Crap food, excessive packaging, and downsizing contents is up for debate. The little cups of yogurt have gotten me mad- how is that green? Many more little plastic containers in the trash? Go to Goodwill, buy a yougurt maker and make your own- it is easy, you control the fat content and there are no weird additives. Can the mom with 11 have a garden? Maybe not, with all the demands on her time or other realities, but can that help? Good luck, mom!

  • A bag of frozen broccoli is more economical for us for many reasons. A head of broccoli costs around $2-3 here. Two 12 oz. bags of prepped, frozen broccoli costs about $1.80, and there is no waste/trimmings, I save on time, and I save on cleanup costs (washing the cutting board, etc.)

    Also, space in the fridge is at a premium, but I have a large freezer in the garage that I use to store frozen goods. It’s easier for me to store frozen vegetables than it is to keep fresh vegetables; 3 heads of broccoli for the week would take up too much room in the fridge.

    I can garden somewhat, but I rent so I certainly can’t plow up the lawn to grow all our veggies. I’m limited to the flower bed in the back and containers on the porch (can’t grow veggies/food in the front yard.) Also I’m not very good at gardening (although I can grow chard like a champ.)

    I make yogurt in a Thermos- no yogurt maker needed!

  • JudyThomas

    Frozen veggies sound like a good alternative, Milehimama. Any community gardens near you? Though that involves a schlep and time… I have a farm stand near me and the produce prices are way lower than the grocery, and the quality is just as good or better (esp. for the local stuff!) Good luck!

  • Less content equals less calorie and the bonus is cheaper price. I guess it works for people who are on a diet 🙂