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Are your favourite foods changing under the guise of “skimpflation”?

Sylvain CharleboisFood prices are rising, and new words are being created to explain why. Along with higher prices and smaller product sizes – a trend known as “shrinkflation” – consumers have also found themselves grappling with the concept of “shelflation.” If you’ve noticed a decline in product quality, you can blame “shelflation,” which refers to food items having a shorter shelf life due to disruptions in the supply chain, particularly affecting perishables like produce.

Another term you need to be aware of is “skimpflation,” which signifies a subtle alteration in the nutritional composition of certain products. This isn’t a new practice; food companies have been doing it for years. They’ve changed recipes, which can often result in discernible disparities in taste and texture.

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For example, a recent CBC report highlighted changes in E.D. Smith’s pumpkin pie filling recipe, with vegetable oil moving down the ingredient list and water taking on a more prominent role as the third primary ingredient. Familiar products like Cheez Whiz have changed too, with cheese no longer being the main ingredient and being replaced with something called “modified dairy substances.” This trend extends across a spectrum of products, including granola bars, chips, chocolate, pasta, and crackers.

Why are food manufacturers doing this? There are a few reasons. While “skimpflation” might make you think companies are just trying to save money – and that’s part of it – there’s more going on. As the cost of food ingredients surge, companies reformulate and rigorously test new recipes to keep prices down while ensuring consumers remain unaware of any changes. Admittedly, the nutritional integrity of products can be compromised in the process.

But food manufacturers might also reformulate products to appeal to specific demographics, or to meet new rules and regulations. This might involve intentional alterations in flavours, calorie counts, sodium levels, fat content, or even sugar content.

An upcoming law in 2026 about labels will require symbols on packages with high levels of saturated fat, sugars, and/or sodium. To avoid having such an indicator on their products, companies are changing their recipes now, resulting in revised ingredient lists for numerous food items.

Essentially, “skimpflation” is about more than saving money. It’s also a response to new rules and regulations. These practices are legal, but if you want to understand what’s happening, you’ll need to watch food labels closely. Unfortunately, there’s not much else customers can do.

“Skimpflation” is also affecting customer service in grocery stores. A recent report from Field Agent Canada showed that many people are unhappy with the service they’re getting. Seventy-nine percent have noticed products being unavailable, 55 percent have encountered longer queues, 48 percent have found fewer checkout clerks, and 39 percent have found insufficient checkout lanes. The proliferation of self-checkout lanes has also made some customers unhappy. These issues highlight more ways companies are trying to cut costs.

However, the impact of “skimpflation” on our food economy extends beyond products to encompass customer service. Over the past year, a report from Field Agent Canada has illuminated a host of unsatisfactory service-related experiences in grocery stores, indicative of a shift in service quality and labour issues. As a collective, 79 percent of Canadians have observed instances of product unavailability, 55 percent have encountered longer queues, 48 percent have noted a shortage of checkout clerks, 47 percent have struggled to locate store employees, and 39 percent have identified an insufficient number of checkout lanes. The proliferation of self-checkout lanes in recent years has further exacerbated consumer dissatisfaction. All these instances underscore a trend of cutbacks and cost-saving measures.

The landscape of grocery shopping has undergone a transformation. Not only have products evolved, but the service provided has also undergone alterations. It is imperative for consumers to pay attention and adapt to these changes in the food market as they navigate the evolving food economy.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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