The Food You Buy Really Is Shrinking

It’s probably happened to you in a supermarket aisle, or maybe at home while making a favourite family recipe. You’ll notice something odd – a can of tomato soup seems to hold less than it did, or the tuna used to be enough for three sandwiches, not two. It might dawn on you in the bathroom, where last month the household went through twelve rolls of toilet paper, up from the usual 9 or 10. You don’t imagine things. If you look closely at the fine print on the packaging, you may see it has changed ever so slightly; the numbers ticked down by a few ounces, the sheets on those rolls have grown shorter. And there have probably been many, many times that you just haven’t noticed. All around you, all the time, many consumer products are growing lighter, thinner, less substantial – all while maintaining the same price. Of course, when people do spot this state of affairs, they raise a hue and cry. When Toblerone chocolate bars in some UK shops changed their distinctive row of chocolate mountain peaks, the news media and the public hit the roof. “We chose to change the shape to keep the product affordable for our customers,” Toblerone’s parent company, Mondelez International, wrote on their Facebook page. Mondelez International was not immediately available to comment.

It’s the sort of public relations problem that most brands would prefer to avoid. To boot, long before products hit shelves, there are usually costs incurred to re-tool manufacturing facilities to accommodate an altered package, says Pierre Chandon, a professor of marketing at France’s European Institute of Business Administration (INSEAD). And yet, the shrinkage continues. According to the UK’s Office of National Statistics, 2,529 products on supermarket shelves decreased in size or weight in the five years between 2012 and 2017. So why are the products on our shelves continuing to shrink? The answers lie not only in rising costs of commodities but also in certain peculiarities of human perception and some unsettling trends in business.

While most people will react to the “shrinkflation” of the products they buy each week with momentary outrage, some go further – they remember. Edgar Dworsky is one such individual. The retired consumer rights lawyer, who runs the watchdog site, has a collection of old bottles, boxes, and packets stored in his home in the Boston area that document how products in US grocery stores have downsized over the past few decades – through the practice may be as old as packaged goods. “One of the earliest examples I saw of downsizing, growing up as a kid, was coffee,” Dworsky recalls.  At that time, customers expected to buy a 16oz (454g), or one-pound, package of coffee along with their half-gallon (2.27 litres) of ice cream and a gallon (4.55 litres) of milk.  He still has one of the original 16-ounce cans of coffee in his garage, he says. But all that changed. “Suddenly, the contents of the coffee can started shrinking. The cans were the same size, but there was now 13oz of coffee,” Dworsky goes on. Some years ago, when he called a coffee manufacturer during a bout of downsizing and asked what was going on, he got an amazingly whimsical answer: “’We’ve fluffed up the beans to expose more sides of each little granule. And it just doesn’t fit in the can anymore! We had to put less in.’” He found this less than convincing. Dworsky has, in fact, heard a similar argument concerning toilet paper – rolls got shorter because the paper was supposedly now “so fluffy” that it couldn’t fit in people’s toilet paper holders without a reduction in length, Dworsky says one manufacturer told him. Consumer watchdog Which? Found in 2016 that some brands of toilet paper have lost up to 14% of the number of sheets per roll over two years, without any corresponding drop in price. Products, where fluff could not possibly enter the picture, are shrinking too: Some toothpaste has started being sold in tubes that hold less and consequently cost more per millilitre. A study of US breakfast cereals over a three-year period by researchers at Arizona State University and Cornell University in New York found 15 products suffered a reduction in packet size, and in the majority, this resulted in an increase in the relative cost for each ounce (28g) of cereal.

Research by the BBC earlier in 2018 also revealed that many popular chocolate bars have reduced in size over the past four years. A Twix, for example, has lost 13.8% of its weight since 2014, while Kit Kat Chunky bars are 16.7% lighter. Folklore suggests downsizing began in the era of nickel-chocolate vending machines, Dworsky says. In the misty past, about a hundred years ago, some chocolate vending machines took only five-cent coins. When the cost of making the chocolate went up, the story goes, the vendor couldn’t just raise the price without building new machines. Instead, they asked for the bars to be made slightly smaller. Dworsky points out that there isn’t any evidence of these specific events, but this it is a good example of the kind of situation that can lead to downsizing today.

When costs rise, a company has three options: raise the price; make smaller packages; change the ingredients. Changing the recipe is a risky business. Not only is there the problem of a product that doesn’t taste right – as Chandon, the INSEAD marketing professor, puts it, the three most important things in food are taste, taste, and taste – but secretly substituting sub-par or artificial ingredients can result in a much more serious backlash against a company than even downsizing. “From the late 1970s to the late 1990s, there was some egregious reformulation going on,” says Mark Lang, a professor of marketing at University of Tampa, Florida, who spent many years as a grocery executive. This reformulating ­– switching in hydrogenated oils, artificial sweeteners, and other substances to stand in for more expensive ingredients, for example – helped with the bottom line. But for many people, it marked a breach of trust between consumers and food manufacturers. Lang says that while activists and foodies have rejected such practices for a long time, in the last few years, there has also been an unmistakable backlash from shoppers.

Raising the price also makes companies nervous. Shoppers are more conscious of changes in prices than changes in weight, and a small boost might have a big effect, as consumers who were on the edge of choosing a cheaper brand do so. If the price goes above a certain threshold – like moving from $0.99 to $1.49 – the effect is magnified, says Chandon. People will actually consciously weigh the decision of which item to buy, rather than doing what they have always done. That leaves downsizing. If consumers mostly don’t notice the change, the company can continue to sell the same formula with a higher effective price but no customer exodus. “It is worth it,” says Chandon. “There are tons of companies that do it and don’t get the backlash.” There are ways to shrink packages so that they actually look like they hold the same volume as before, says Chandon, who has performed experiments to study people’s perception on this point. If a box of, say, chopped tomatoes gets taller, while the width and length of the base contract, the human eye does some quick maths and believes that one compensates for the other. But it’s actually a dramatic difference in volume. In experiments, Chandon has shown that people believe that two candles, the original weight and a new one that is a bit longer, weigh the same. But the longer one is 24% lighter. If you aren’t checking the weight written on the package, it’s easy to miss the switch. There’s sometimes a fairly understandable reason for this: rising costs. In the UK, a new tax on sugar – which came into effect in April – has led to shrinkage of Coca-Cola bottles. Rival drinks manufacturer Irn-Bru went the reformulation route instead, adding an artificial sweetener, and suffered a backlash against the decision, although the firm insists that the response to its new recipe has been encouraging. Similarly, if it’s a bad year for the peanut harvest, as it was in the US in 2011, then peanut butter will cost more. In response to past shortages, some manufacturers have increased the size of the dimple in the bottom of the jar to reduce the amount it can hold. Fuel prices are also often cited in justifications of shrinkage. This is what Lang calls the “good” reason for the practice. It is what it is.

But he says there is also a bad reason. In recent years, companies whose main business isn’t food—finance and investment companies—have gotten interested in the food sector. And they have a management approach that makes him fear for the long-term viability of the brands they’ve bought. “They treat it like they’re selling nuts and bolts,” Lang warns. “They’re not astute to the nuances of a food product.” By downsizing, changing formulas, re-jigging other aspects of a product, “they’re wringing every penny of profit they can get out of these organisations,” he says. “They think the average consumer won’t notice.” Is it possible for a shopper looking at a shelf to tell whether a product was downsized for a good reason or a bad one? Unfortunately, no, says Lang, although food industry experts may be able to take a guess. But consumers’ fear of exactly this kind of manoeuvring is part of what makes downsizing so hard to swallow.

Chandon, who also studies the pleasure of eating, thinks that there’s a way to downsize some products, like chocolate, that doesn’t irritate so many people but doesn’t fool them either. That’s because the enjoyment we get from food doesn’t grow in lockstep with the amount consumed. “The first bite of a chocolate mousse is usually the most pleasurable,” he says. “After that, it decreases. The last bite, honestly, it’s the one you regret. We all know that. The thing we fail to realise – and it’s super-important – is that the pleasure of this entire chocolate mousse you’re eating is not the sum of the pleasure of each bite. It is the average.” If you’re eating a super-size portion ­– and while downsizing makes the news a lot, the growth of portion sizes is a real public health issue – you’re subtracting from your pleasure as you go on. If there’s a cost increase for the manufacturer, maybe that’s an opportunity, Chandon argues, to be upfront with consumers. Perhaps rather than hoping no-one notices, it could become a selling point. “This is a smaller package, but it’s for savouring,” Chandon suggests.

Chandon’s studies have shown that if you get people to remember what it’s like to eat a really good dessert before choosing from five sizes of brownie, they don’t choose the largest. They choose a medium-sized portion that gives them the most pleasure with the least regret. The idea has its limitations; it’s not an argument you can reasonably apply to toilet paper, though it might be a good fit for items that people buy to enjoy. Still, in the end, Dworsky says that the sneakiness, and the sense that companies have a low opinion of their customers’ intelligence, is what gets to him most. Over his years as a professional observer of grocery shelves, he has noticed an interesting pattern: it is common for a downsized product to come full circle. First, a product drops from 16oz to 14.5oz. Then, as the years pass, maybe it goes down to 11oz. Perhaps it even drops to 8oz. Then, a 16oz size appears again. But this time, it’s the super or mega size. And the cost is much, much higher than that of the original. It isn’t clear whether companies plan this bizarre roundabout of change, but it certainly is part of the life cycle of goods that are sold by the package – the same thing, presented as if it were new, and with a price that’s grown. Would Dworsky prefer it if companies came right out and just raised the price, rather than playing these games? He pauses, thinks about it. “That way, at least I know what I’m paying for,” he says. “In my fantasy, I would love to see manufacturers have to put a big bold disclosure on downsized products that say, ‘Look, New, Smaller Size’. But that will never happen.”

Credit: Veronique Greenwood for The BBC, 14 May 2018.