Processed Food Makers Cut Corners As Prices Rise

Reading time: 4 – 6 minutes

Do you read labels at the supermarket? If you do, you may soon notice changes in the ingredients of some of the foods you buy. Food makers are quietly substituting cheaper ingredients in processed foods to offset the high price of commodities.

The Wall Street Journal took note of this trend last weekend, reporting that Food Makers Scrimp on Ingredients In An Effort to Fatten Their Profits [1]. However, that may be overstating their intentions. With high fuel prices driving up the cost of basic ingredients such as sugar and wheat, food companies are are forced to make a choice: raise prices or cut corners. Because competition in the industry is so strong, raising prices is the last thing food companies want to do. Instead, they look to the quality and quantity of the ingredients they use [2]. For example:

  • Kraft Miracle Whip now contains more water
  • Nestle snack products now contain less milk
  • Sara Lee has switched to cheaper wheat for some breads
  • Mars Inc. is reducing the size of its Funsize candy packs
  • Hamburger Helper products have reduced the number of spice and ingredient pouches
  • Some of Hershey’s chocolates are now being made with vegetable oil instead of cocoa butter

Food Label

While some companies are adding fillers or cheaper ingredients, others are simply trimming manufacturing costs to save money. Food makers that are changing ingredients insist that they aren’t sacrificing quality or nutritional value. That may be hard to swallow, given that they’re reducing ingredient quality and quantity. Although it’s not hard to imagine smaller quantities (and thus lower calories) making a positive impact on health, the WSJ article cited at least one change that doesn’t result in a healthier product: making chocolate with vegetable oil instead of cocoa butter. Indeed, by replacing cocoa butter with vegetable oil, Hershey’s is lowering the overall health benefit of chocolate. Why? Because a number of epidemiologic studies have shown that cocoa, rich in flavonoids, has a number of cardiovascular health benefits [4-5].

The question is, will consumers be sensitive to the nutritional affects of these kinds of changes?

Not really, according to Harry Balzer of the NPD group, a market research and industry tracking firm [3]:

Consumers read labels. About half of all Americans say they routinely read labels on food products. So, I’d say yes, but the question really is ‘are they going to alter their behavior because of the reading the label’. Our experience has been no. Health in this country is really a secondary issue, a secondary concern. The primary concerns are taste, cost and ease.

What can health-concious consumers do? Keep in mind that these changes are occurring in processed foods. Food processing tends to lower the nutritional value of food, and processed foods often have a higher ratio of calories to other essential nutrients than unprocessed foods. Simply by reading this article you’re aware that cheaper ingredients are being used in processed foods — review your labels carefully.

Your best bet? Stick with fresh fruits and vegetables. A diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables is important for maintaining good health. When fresh produce isn’t available, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables are a good option. Canned vegetables don’t taste as good as fresh and typically aren’t as nutritious, but it’s better than not eating vegetables at all. Fruits and vegetables contain essential vitamins, minerals and fiber, and increased consumption lowers your risk of developing several cancers.

Additional resources can be found in the Nutrition category of the Highlight HEALTH Web Directory.

References

  1. Food Makers Scrimp on Ingredients In an Effort to Fatten Their Profits . The Wall Street Journal. 2008 Aug 23.
  2. Secret ingredient? A cheaper substitute. Marketplace Morning Report, Marketplace, American Public Media. 2008 May 9.
  3. ‘Marketplace’ Report: Check Your Spices. Day to Day, Marketplace, American Public Media. 2008 Aug 25.
  4. Engler and Engler. The emerging role of flavonoid-rich cocoa and chocolate in cardiovascular health and disease. Nutr Rev. 2006 Mar;64(3):109-18.
    View abstract
  5. Erdman et al. Effects of cocoa flavanols on risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2008;17 Suppl 1:284-7.
    View abstract
About the Author

Walter Jessen is a senior writer for Highlight HEALTH Media.