Friday, April 1, 2011

The Incredible Shrinking Package

This week, the New York Times had an article about deceptive packaging.

Basically, companies are packaging their product in smaller sizes, but charging the same price. Remember 8 oz cups of yogurt? Then they were 6.5 oz, then 6 oz, now 5 oz--for the same price. A can of tomatoes used to be 16 oz. Now it's 14.5. "Half gallons" of ice cream no longer exist. "A pound" of coffee, or bacon, or whatever, is actually 12 oz.

Call me crazy, but I was pretty sure a pound = 16 oz.

Sometimes the companies try to sell the smaller packages as "greener" or "conveniently sized" or "packaged for freshness!" They change the shape of the package, the color, they add a plastic window for viewing, they take away the plastic window for viewing. If the package design suddenly changes, beware. The company is probably hiding something.

They've even been known to claim, say, "25% less fat!" when in fact you're getting 25% less Snickers bar. Those ergonomic squeeze bottles of ketchup and mayo are disguising a much smaller overall bottle.

Old recipes often don't work because of this. Not only because the can of tomatoes went from 16 oz to 14.5, but because there's also more water in the can than there used to be.

What does this mean for you?

Basically, we're all going to have to start paying very close attention--to ingredient lists, to packaging, and most importantly, to unit size.

You can mitigate this sneakiness by:

1. Don't buy things in packages. (Do I need to say "Duh"?)

Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, make your own yogurt/bread/soup/mac and cheese/ice cream, buy in bulk whenever possible. Dried fruits, pasta, grains, beans and lentils are far cheaper from the bulk bins than they are in boxes, and you know exactly how much you're getting. (And you're not paying for the extra air inside the box.)

It goes without saying that the unhealthiest foods--chips, soda, cookies, the ultra-processed stuff--are the worst offenders of Sneaky Package Shrink. Hello, "100 calorie" packaging. Loaf bread has been mostly air and preservatives for years.

But even supposedly healthy things, like juice, are cutting back on the amount of actual juice in the product, cutting back the package size, and then adding extra sugar and water to disguise the difference.

If it has more than one ingredient, it's processed. Don't buy it if you don't have to.

2. The best way to accurately gauge what you're getting is to look at the unit price. Even if you're buying a 25-lb bag of flour from Costco, sometimes the per-pound price is cheaper at the supermarket (especially if you hit a sale). Bring a calculator with you to the store.

For example:

A 14.5 oz can of corn divided by its price of $1.59 equals 9.11 cents per ounce.

But a 5-lb bag of frozen corn divided by its price of $3.80 equals 4.75 cents per ounce (5 lbs x 16 oz in a pound = 80 oz).

You're better off buying the big bag (plus you're not paying for the water in the can).

Unless the can of corn goes on sale for 69 cents or less. Sometimes the generic can of corn is already that cheap. Then you're getting a better deal, per ounce of corn.

Yes, you will have to do math in the store. It sucks. I hate it too. That's one of the main reasons I quit buying things in packages. (That, plus Proctor & Gamble doesn't need any of my hard-earned money.)

Yes, I know raisins sell for $1.59 a pound in the bulk bin, but in the snack aisle, they're sold in sets of 6 56-gram boxes. Stores do that on purpose to confuse you.

3. Pay attention to how much you're using. Look at ultra-concentrated laundry detergent; they sell it in smaller bottles, knowing full well that most people will use a full cap regardless of the instructions. Meaning they sell more laundry detergent, at higher prices.

Don't use more than you have to. You won't need more than a pea-sized amount of toothpaste to get your teeth clean; you don't need more than a couple tablespoons of detergent to get a load of clothes or a load of dishes clean; you don't need to use three paper towels to clean a window when one will do (better yet, you can clean windows with vinegar and old newspaper, thereby negating having to buy Windex and paper towels at all).

4. Double-check. Not all 10-lb. bags of potatoes actually contain 10 lbs of potatoes. Some contain 9.2 lbs. Some contain 10.5. You'll need to weigh a few to figure out which bag contains the most potatoes.

Double-check your receipt, too. At least 1 of every 5 "sale items" I've ever purchased rang up at the original, non-sale price. Of course it was up to me to spot the error and go back to the customer service desk and wait in line to get my refund. Supermarkets do that on purpose, figuring most people won't bother. And they're right. But it adds up--what seems like a trivial amount to you becomes hundreds and thousands of extra dollars for the supermarket. Over time, it becomes hundreds and thousands of dollars out of your pocket, too.

5. Teach your kids to spot this stuff, too. Most adults don't pay attention to package shrink, because they never learned to. Just like most adults don't know how to cook--they were never taught how to cook. Or how to do their taxes by hand. Or how to sew on a button. Or how to change a tire.

But you catch my drift.

Self-sufficiency is always better--and cheaper--than the alternative.

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