The Subtle Bite of ‘Skimpflation’: Canadian Consumers Feel Deceived by Ingredient Swaps

The milk chocolate coating on Quaker Dipps granola bars has been switched to a "chocolatey" substance made with palm oil. (Sophia Harris/CBC)

‘Skimpflation’ hits grocery shelves as companies quietly substitute ingredients for cheaper alternatives, leaving a bitter taste for shoppers

Canadians are increasingly encountering a covert cost-cutting tactic known as ‘skimpflation‘ where food manufacturers substitute premium ingredients for cheaper ones without reducing prices, leaving consumers like Daniel Noël of Sherbrooke, Que., feeling deceived.

Last year, Noël experienced an unexpected change in taste with his usual snack, Quaker Dipps granola bars, which led him to uncover a switch from a milk chocolate to a “chocolatey coating” made with palm oil. “I feel that I’ve been fooled,” Noël, 51, told CBC News. “It’s not the same product. It’s not the same taste.”

According to consumer watchdog Edgar Dworsky, based in Boston, skimpflation is a subtle way companies reduce value without lowering prices, a practice that seems to be increasing with the recent inflation surge. However, this tactic is hard to detect, Dworsky notes, as companies are not obliged to disclose changes beyond updating the ingredient list.

U.S. consumer advodate Edgar Dworsky exposes examples of skimpflation and shrinkflation on his website, Mouse Print.
The older version of Wish-Bone house Italian dressing, left, contains more oil and less sodium than the current version, right. (Submitted by Edgar Dworsky)

Quaker’s parent company, PepsiCo, has not commented on the shift to a “chocolatey coating.” However, Canadian regulations are clear: to be labeled as “chocolate,” a product must contain certain amounts of cocoa butter and powder and must not contain vegetable oils. Jennifer Lee, a registered dietitian and doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto, highlighted that Quaker’s new recipe does not meet the Canadian standard of identity for chocolate, hence the term ‘chocolatey coating.’

The issue extends beyond chocolate bars. Dworsky’s website lists other potential cases of skimpflation, like the Wish-Bone House Italian salad dressing, which has seen a more than 22% reduction in oil content, replaced with added water and sodium. Customer complaints on Wish-Bone’s website suggest a dissatisfaction with the newer, “watered down” version.

Consumers and advocates are calling for more transparency around the practice of shrinking packaging rather than increasing prices, known as ‘shrinkflation.’ Other countries make companies display weight changes on product labels.

While Ottawa has announced plans to investigate skimpflation, there is currently no action plan in place. Nutrition expert Vasanti Malik of the University of Toronto recognizes that recipe changes are common for various reasons and argues that it may not be feasible for manufacturers to alert customers on packaging with every revision.

However, Lee suggests that clear communication about recipe changes could foster trust between consumers and manufacturers. As for consumers like Noël, they’re left to scrutinize ingredient lists more closely, while Dworsky recommends complaining to manufacturers if product changes are unsatisfactory — a strategy that led to Conagra reverting to the original recipe for its Smart Balance buttery spread after consumer backlash.