The Grocery Shrink Ray: Quietly Stealing Our Food For Decades

The Grocery Shrink Ray is what we call it when the manufacturers of food and consumer goods make their products smaller––sometimes almost imperceptibly smaller––rather than raise prices. You know what it looks like: it’s why your toilet paper doesn’t quite fill the holder anymore, and why you don’t get as many servings of hot chocolate as you used to. We know that it’s been in action for decades, but is there proof? Yes: one need only turn to collectors of consumer ephemera like boxes and cans.

There are a surprising number of vintage food packaging and ad collectors out there, and one of them is one of the generous and talented frequent contributors to the Consumerist Flickr pool that we use to illustrate many of our posts. Bluwmongoose has provided us with quality vintage artwork for years now, and we decided to check on the current sizes on some cool pieces from her collection that had been submitted to the pool.

Our first example comes from the vegetable aisle. It’s not clear when this can of Libby’s creamed corn was sold, but the label has a very ’70s look. The can is 16.5 ounces.

In addition to losing two of the repeats of “Libby’s” on the label, the same product has lost 1.75 ounces over the years. Here’s the contemporary version for sale at Walmart:

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It’s only 14.75 ounces. As far as I’m concerned, cream corn is an evil and vile food and the less of it there is in the world the better. That could also be my 6-year-old self talking about my parents’ love of bowls of the stuff served plain.

How about elsewhere in the canned food aisle? Hunt’s pasta sauces are a staple for many consumers. Similar products across brands tend to shrink to the same size over time, and we know that competitor Del Monte shrank their cans a little bit earlier this year. Even when we can’t find original cans or cardboard packaging, the evidence of a product’s former size remains in classic recipes. For example, this recipe for Hunt’s from 1989 calls for one can of sauce. How big is that can?

If you look for recipes from food manufacturers today, the evidence shows something different. Here’s a recipe for a Beefy Ziti Skillet that also calls for a can of Hunt’s pasta sauce.

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That can is 24 ounces, just like the Del Monte example from February.

Or how about some shelled walnuts? Here’s a nice vintage can. Surely as a “pound” of coffee or other nuts have lost a few ounces over the years, so have walnuts. Right?

Nope! I have almost the same exact can on my counter right now, but here’s the same pound of nuts available at Walmart in the same full pound. A bag is easier to transport and store than a can, but the whole 16 ounces is there in either type of packaging.

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Sometimes the changes were not what we expected. For example, back in the ’80s, Pop-Tarts came in boxes of six. Here’s a box from 1983:

Today, the standard smallest box you can find on the shelf is a box of 8.

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  1. IrishLad118 says:

    I can handle cleaning products and toiletries being a victim of the ray…but the recipe thing is what bothers me the most. I have recipes that I’ve inherited from my grandmother, and it bugs the pants off me that I can’t make them the way they were originally intended because I’m missing 2 ounces here and half a cup there. They’re messing with my memories…sweet, delicious, culinary memories!

  2. radioone says:

    I can remember when all spaghetti sauce jars used to be 1 quart (32oz) now they are down to 24oz,.

  3. webalias says:

    I’m not sure smaller portions are a bad thing — given that more than 2/3rds of Americans are overweight. What bothers me is that many products seem to have declined not only in quantity, but quality. If I find myself eating any packaged frozen entree with chicken, beef, or pork, there’s a good chance that at some point I’ll bite into some hard, gritty fragment of something I can’t identify, that makes me wonder what part of the animal it came from — if any. Or there will be some weird, gristly chunk of something that might have come from some part of a cow or chicken, but is nearly inedible. I don’t remember having to spit out so many bites of bone or cartilage or whatever-it-is when I ate these same products as a kid. I also don’t remember so many products tasting as sickly-sweet as they do now. The result of the use of low-cost, high fructose corn syrup in just about everything, perhaps?