If you grocery shop the way most people do, you probably plan a few meals in advance, make a list, and then buy more or less the same items week after week. You know about what your weekly food bill should be, and so you’d likely notice any price upticks of the items you regularly buy. But what you might not notice is that while food prices might be holding steady, package sizes are shrinking. So, while you might think you’re not paying any more, you are—simply because you’re getting less.
Food companies will do this from time to time when unemployment rates are up, or when food costs are rising. They’ll downsize package contents a bit so they can avoid raising food prices. It’s done in an attempt to keep peace with consumers who would certainly notice when their grocery costs start climbing, but who may not pick up on the fact that their packages are shriveling in size.
A few less chips or cookies in a bag probably wouldn’t be obvious to most people. And you might not have noticed the big the ‘dimple’ in the bottom of a peanut butter jar because the other dimensions of the jar have stayed the same, so it looks normal on the shelf. Tuna cans have stayed the same size, but they hold a lot less tuna than they used to.
Not believing that I’d been fooled, I took a quick tour through my own refrigerator and cupboards and, lo and behold, my “quart” jar of nonfat mayo has only 30 ounces instead of the full 32. A can of tuna yields a measly four ounces of fish after it’s drained. No wonder I can barely get two sandwiches out of it. And that “one pound” can of tomatoes I used to buy? The one on my shelf holds 14 ½ ounces instead of 16.
Now unstoppable, I headed out to my local store and found that one brand of orange juice—in the standard “two-quart” container—was now 5 ounces shy of the full amount. Plenty of packages of pasta missed the usual one-pound mark by an ounce or two. Ditto for canned beans and corn. And if you’re running into the store for a “pound” of ground coffee, you’ll need two hands—every package I picked up had only 12 ounces.
This downsizing is usually done pretty quietly, but some of the recent changes have been so dramatic, that they just can’t go unnoticed. Some food companies are trying a different spin. They’re telling us we should feel good about small packages because they contain fewer calories, and that less packaging material makes products more environmentally friendly. Smaller packages, they say, are more portable and foods tend to stay fresher.
True as those statements may be, it’s also true that we’re getting hit where it hurts. Any way you look at it, we’re paying more for food. We need to start looking at food prices like we do the price of gasoline. We might gripe about it, but at least we know how much we’re paying per gallon. So, pay more attention to those little “unit price” stickers on grocery shelves. If you’re not comparing the cost per ounce of everything you buy, you’re just comparing, as they say, apples to oranges.