Picture this. You pop open a bag of barbecue chips as you sit down to watch a football game or Love Island. Then you stare down in disbelief. You bought a bag of air with a smattering of chips at the bottom. This is a universal experience. It’s called shrinkflation.
For years, companies have been shrinking the amount of food in their products while keeping prices the same or even increasing them. In what should be a criminal offense, Häagan-Dazs shrank their tubs of ice cream by two ounces in 2009. In 2016, Toblerone tried shrinking their chocolate bars by putting comically large gaps between each peak of chocolate. The change was too visually obvious, so they reversed course after a massive internet backlash — but when the changes are subtler, it’s harder for people to notice. In 2014, Frito-Lay shrank their Sun Chips bag from ten ounces to only seven. Do you think the price decreased by 30 percent as well? Of course not! Consumers were stuck paying more for less.
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are a classic American food, and possibly one of our only defensible cultural innovations, but nowadays you can’t find a single peanut butter or jelly jar in the supermarket that doesn’t have a little dimple on the bottom. The purpose of that dimple is to sneakily shrink the content inside the containers. Observant shoppers have reported finding similar dimples on everything from tubs of hummus to shakers of parmesan cheese. Check your pantry right now. You’ll find dimples everywhere except on your face, because you won’t be smiling.
This corporate practice has become even more common this year, as companies use the excuse of inflation as cover for shameless price gouging. A two-pack from Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups went from 1.6 ounces to 1.5 ounces. General Mills shrunk their “family size” box of cereal by about 6 percent. Doritos bags lost 0.5 ounces. Other than the listed net grams, the packaging is identical — only dedicated snack connoisseurs spotted these changes. Some packages of Pedigree dog food have shrunk from fifty pounds to forty-four. Yes, they’re even trying to starve your dog. And this isn’t only happening to food. Bounty paper towels are less bountiful and the laundry detergent Gain has undergone loss.
Shrinkflation is having a pop culture moment. The word was recently added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, and the phenomenon has been the subject of multiple viral investigative journalist–style TikToks. But shrinkflation is not a fad adopted by companies to help them survive the pandemic. It’s an inevitable part of our economic system. Under capitalism, companies are incentivized to make profit at the expense of everything else. They have no duty to the environment, the government, or even the consumer. Their goal is to get your money and to keep as much of it as they can. Any extra financial investment they put into the product would cut into their profit margin.
It’s easy to imagine the technocratic liberal response to this problem. Wonks will write white papers about the need for more stringent labeling laws and robust consumer advocacy agencies that teach people to compare the price per ounce before buying. But none of these solutions get to the heart of the matter, which is a fundamental imbalance of power. Private companies decide sizing and set prices behind closed doors in their boardrooms, answering only to unelected shareholders. The rest of us live under their undemocratic decrees, taking whatever they give us.
Shrinkflation seems silly until you recognize it as an expression of power. Corporations are comfortable shorting us on treats because they think there’s nothing we can do about it. They’re wrong. We don’t have to settle for dimpled jam jars and lighter-than-air chip bags. If we organize, we can seize the snack factory.