The Value of our Food

This is a first draft describing techniques used by the food industry to give the consumer less for their money. We hope to soon improve this article with images and diagrams, more narrative, and evidence.

  • Food is now [2018] relatively cheap compared with other things that money can buy.[1]
    [graph of relative price of food, vs 25th-percentile annual earnings, 1930-present]
  • The food industry is developing more ways to give you less food for your money, to dilute the main ingredients, and to maximize profit from sales of food.

Here is a small selection of the ways that food is being made to give less value to consumers. Look out for these when you shop.

Ways of giving you less food

Using filler ingredients

  • Adding water, diluting the product so you pay more (by weight) for the original main ingredient.
    • Tumbling and injecting meat with water;
    • Labelling it as a positive; meat is "succulent";
    • Designing packaging to hide more water: sponge sheets, micro-wells.
  • Whipping air into the product, to sell by capacity rather than weight (ice cream).
  • Using gum (xanthan, guar), cornflour or MSG to thicken up a thin product. Can also be used to hold more water or air.

Changing the balance of ingredients

  • Selling 'unusable' parts along with the part we want (fat/bone/etc on cuts of meat, woody stalks on veg, extra leaves).
  • Cheapest ingredient on the outside of spheres (scotch egg) or concentric circles (rice in restaurant dishes); we perceive radial distance, which is different from the area or volume that determines the quantity of food.
  • Words:
    • "With" means there may be a tiny quantity of the ingredient.
    • Using unmeasurable or emotive words to describe benefits.
  • Using nutritional labelling to suggest smaller portions (less food to feed more people)

Package design

Presenting a large label, with a less product than expected behind it.

  • Circular containers: 22% less than square.
  • Waistline bottles: 15% less.
  • Inverted pyramids: making the packaging smaller away from the label; the waistline principle on two axes: 25% less.
  • Dimple base: it looks tall from the side, but the dimple makes it more hollow (benefit: packaging strength): 5–10% less.
  • Widest at the top, and not filled completely: allows an air gap that looks small, but occupies a large volume (drink powders, yogurt): up to 25% less.
  • Air bags: the product fills only 30% of a large bag (crisps, snacks).
  • Thick glass bottles and jars: refractive index makes it look like the product extends to the outside of the glass, rather than the inside (slim-and-tall bottles, wines and spirits). Can double the visual size small luxury products (jars of jam). Water performs this role for frozen products, particularly finely-chopped vegetables.
  • Two pockets with central label: the label covers the gap, so we think the product extends across the middle (looks twice as big). Can also serve to add space between tear-off servings.
  • Plastic inserts: spacing small items over a large area (chocolates, biscuits, meat).
  • Walled gardens: presenting a flat product with hollow height (pies with 3mm of filling and puff pastry, chocolate that is shaped with high 'walls' or is blocked out with gaps).

Creative pricing (supply, point of sale)

  • Fluctuating prices regularly, to introduce 'noise', so the consumer cannot know a good price.
  • Price increases before a 'sale' or special offer.
  • Incomparable pricing: 'each' vs 'per pack' vs 'per [weight]'
  • Selling by weight, with no convenient means to check.
  • Justifying price increases using news of market conditions.
  • Picking crops early, presenting them small, and pricing as 'each'.