How to Save on Groceries, Fight Hidden Food Inflation

By , SparkPeople Blogger
How much attention do you pay to the cans, boxes and bottles you buy at the supermarket? If you pay close attention, you might have noticed your favorite products--even healthier ones--shrinking. If, like most consumers, you just grab an item and toss it in your cart, you might not have observed the change--and that's what food manufacturers and marketers hope.

From a NYT story:

“Whole wheat pasta had gone from 16 ounces to 13.25 ounces,” she said. “I bought three boxes and it wasn’t enough — that was a little embarrassing. I bought the same amount I always buy, I just didn’t realize it, because who reads the sizes all the time?”

Ms. Stauber, 33, said she began inspecting her other purchases, aisle by aisle. Many canned vegetables dropped to 13 or 14 ounces from 16; boxes of baby wipes went to 72 from 80; and sugar was stacked in 4-pound, not 5-pound, bags, she said.

Five or so years ago, Ms. Stauber bought 16-ounce cans of corn. Then they were 15.5 ounces, then 14.5 ounces, and the size is still dropping. “The first time I’ve ever seen an 11-ounce can of corn at the store was about three weeks ago, and I was just floored,” she said. “It’s sneaky, because they figure people won’t know.”

Commodity prices are rising; there's no arguing that. What guests on NPR's The Diane Rehm Show debated this week was whether it's deceptive to charge the same amount for products when consumers are getting less--without knowledge. They used examples such as tuna fish that's now sold in 5-ounce cans instead of 6-ounce cans, 64-ounce bottles of OJ that now have just 59 ounces, and potato chips with 20% fewer chips.

That's the bad news. But there's good news: You can still save on groceries, despite shrinking products. Here's how.

Buy in bulk. Part of what you pay for at the supermarket is marketing, packaging, and displays. By buying in bulk, you can buy as much or as little as you need, and the prices are often lower than they would be for prepackaged goods. These days, you can find organic foods in bulk, too.

Shop at a warehouse club. The more you buy, the more you save. Though it might require a bit of money up front (up to $50 a year), warehouse clubs offer per-unit prices that are lower than most supermarkets. I joined Costco last year, and I was pleased to find that there are plenty of healthy, whole foods available there. I buy oats, almonds, quinoa, and whole-wheat pasta there at a fraction of the cost. Single? It still works. I live by myself, but I split the cost of a membership with my boyfriend, and we split large items that might spoil before we have time to eat them. If you just can't afford a membership, ask friends and neighbors if you can tag along when they go. Most clubs allow members to bring a friend.

Read labels--and not just for the calories. Those labels on store shelves tell you more than the retail price; they also allow you to compare prices. Look for the unite price, which is often smaller and in the corner. It will tell you how much the item costs per ounce, pound, etc. Usually, the price is lower per unit for larger boxes.

Buy off brands. For staples, there are few discernable differences among brands when it comes to taste and quality. Splurge on name brands for a few favorite products, and buy store brands for the rest.

Shop elsewhere. The large chain supermarket isn't the only place to buy food. Investigate food co-ops, farmers markets, and even bargain stores such as Aldi, which is known for selling a private line at cheap prices.

And don't forget in-store and manufacturers' coupons (Twitter and Facebook are great sources for deals and tips), credit cards that offer cash back or perks, in-store discounts for loyal customers, and sticking to the perimeter.

Remember that the less processing a product has to have, the less it will cost, regardless of the package size. A canister of oats is going to cost less per serving than a box of packets of flavored oatmeal. Your wallet and your waistline will appreciate the savings.

That's not all. Our sister site,, has several articles on saving money on food--even organic and specialty health foods.

And--perfect timing--we have a new app that will help you pick out fruits and veggies at the grocery store, plus tips on prepping and cooking your produce. No more wasted food! Download the Perfect Produce app!

Have you noticed your favorite products are shrinking? Which ones? How are you fighting back and saving money?