“Calorie creep”

A friend sent me this story in the Guardian:

Fast food, fizzy drinks and larger portion sizes have all been blamed for rising levels of obesity. But figures obtained by the Guardian suggest changes to the recipes of many of our favourite foods could be to blame. Of a dozen leading brands for which we were able to compare nutritional information from a decade or more ago with today, nine showed an increase in calories, sugar or saturated fat.

Kellogg’s Rice Krispies contain 36 more calories per 100g than in 1983 – an increase of about 10% – while Kraft Dairylea Triangles contain 15 more calories per 100g than in 2001, a 7% rise. While cheese used to be their main ingredient, followed by skimmed milk, whey and butter, it now comes third and accounts for just 16%.

Häagen-Dazs Belgian Chocolate ice-cream – always marketed as a dangerous pleasure – contains 16% more calories than in 1994, and 26% more fat. Even products marketed as healthy options are not immune to this “calorie creep”. Jordans Original Crunchy bars have 16% more calories than in 1986, and more fat.

Sainsbury’s said that improved testing was the reason the amount of sugar in its sliced bread appeared to have increased by 400% in the past decade, to 4g in each 100g. “The sugar content hasn’t changed. The sugar that’s found as a part of the carbohydrate in the flour can be better identified now,” a spokeswoman said. Other companies also cited more rigorous and sophisticated tests as the reason for discrepancies.

A victory!

… Heinz baked beans, advertised even in 1983 as being free from artificial flavours and preservatives, now contain less sugar, fat and salt.

Heinz baked beans are the best, man.

In 1997 fewer than 10% of British primary schoolchildren were obese. Now the figure is nearly 17%. And figures from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation show a striking rise in our calorie intake, to almost 3,500 a day – which means that unless we are exercising more, we should on average be putting on 7kg a year.

From the aforementioned correspondence:

Interestingly, this seems to be happening in a range of consumer products

I have it on good authority that this is now also standard MO for cleaning and personal care products (eg toothpaste etc)

Consumers are hooked onto a brand with active ingredients. Once the market share is there, the active ingredients are removed, leaving the shell of the brand, and the high price for you, dear consumer, to bask in.

Very interesting indeed. This makes some degree of sense – there is (as previously mentioned) very little in the way of barriers to entry in monopolistically competitive markets, which we tend to have here (toothpaste is, more or less, toothpaste – what we observe is toothpaste with slight product differentiation). The usual argument is that monopolistically competitive firms retain their market power (the brand loyalty with which they extract rents from consumers) by continuously re-differentiating their product. However (although that still happens in a cosmetic sense, packaging, etc.) what if (a) it became simpler just to compete according to price, trimming one’s product of more expensive goods (or replacing input ingredients with cheaper versions: high fructose corn syrup instead of sugar, for example), while (b) increasing the size?

Size inflation is a common thing seen here, in the US: rather than lower prices, sizes are increased (usually because you can increase size less – proportionately – than you would need to decrease prices to get the same effect), but increased by using more of the crap ingredients and fewer – again, proportionately – of the ingredients that secured the market share in the first place.

This has either driven or followed our demands. Americans are clearly used to sweet biscuits and pastries of inordinately large sizes: I defy other anglo countries to even manage to eat all of one. Partly this is size, partly it’s because they’re so damn rich and sweet that one can barely stand it. On the other hand, England has the God-awful Snickers Pie (no, I’m not kidding). Krispy Kreme also does fairly well down under. Perhaps I’m just skinny and sugar-averse and out of touch (I’d like to see how the caloric contents of such products differ, though, country-by-country. Krispy Kreme’s seem similar – although I suspect the fats in the American ones may be worse.).

I have, actually, noticed that toothpaste, here, has to be checked to ensure it has sodium flouride as its active ingredient. Usually it is the only active ingredient, even though the tube will make many other promises.

I have kind of a vegan’s advantage, here: we have to read the ingredients on everything. I discover previously vegan products ‘go’ non-vegan, every now and then (always annoying).


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