The Working Waterfront

Shrinkflation, reformulation, and recipe extinction

How to combat changes in product ingredients, size

By Sandy Oliver
Posted 2023-03-29
Last Modified 2023-03-29

Shrinkflation and reformulation are messing with our recipes.

This past year, inflation along with supply chain problems sharpened our attention to price increases. Did you notice, though, the few ounces sucked out of a package of your favorite products?

Coined around 2009 or so, “shrinkflation” refers to the reduction of the net weight of goods (like cereal, chips, tuna, soup) while prices remain the same.

Another term for shrinkflation is downsizing.

“Downsizing is really a sneaky price increase,” says Edward Dworsky, formerly an assistant attorney general in Massachusetts. He dedicates himself to consumer advocacy and maintains the website Mouse Print where you can read about the sly effects on our groceries (and many other things) caused by downsizing or shrinkflation. Really worth a look!

The more venerable the cookbook the more likely it is to have unusable, extinct, recipes in it.

Manufacturers also tinker with weight to offset increases in ingredients and have done it for decades. There has been a conscious use of the practice this year to test consumer resilience: how high a price will we accept before squawking or refusing to buy?

Another dodge, reformulation, is when producers alter a product’s recipe to use a cheaper ingredient or to use less of one.
All this compromises recipes.

Well, not all recipes, but many from the 20th and now 21st centuries. Lots of our favorite family recipes call for one can or package of something or other but the can or package you buy isn’t your grandmother’s anymore, and recipes flop unless a savvy family member tinkers with it.

And then reformulation, especially the kind that substituted corn syrup for sugar, can wreak havoc because the syrup doesn’t react in a recipe the way sugar does. The problem is most acute in baking where proportion and chemistry matter more than in assembling a casserole.

Manufacturer’s test kitchens are the proximate cause of this. Industrious recipe developers are cooking up the recipes you see on packages, and over time some of those recipes slipped into family recipe files. Or even into cookbooks, especially community cookbooks, assembled to raise funds for many worthwhile institutions and causes. The more venerable the cookbook the more likely it is to have unusable, extinct, recipes in it.

A young friend, a teacher in western Maine, told me about a class project a colleague instigated. She asked her students to bring a family recipe from home so they could assemble a cookbook.

“Most of the recipes were hacks,” she told me, a dish produced by using a selection of pre-mades. For example, a quiche made with pre-made pie crust, pre-cooked bacon, and pre-grated cheese. It tastes just fine, of course.

I have a cinnamon bun recipe that needs frozen bread dough plus a package of vanilla pudding as well as milk, butter, sugar, and raisins.

It’s delicious though I haven’t made it for several years.

Does any of this matter, really? What’s the loss of a recipe? I don’t know. Old farts like me shake their wattles over these things. Thing is, I’ve seen folks recollect fondly the flavors of their youth, flavors we didn’t care about 30 or 40 years ago, but somehow become more precious whenever connection seems more important.

It’s as if we are holding onto something we care about, but various forces—in this case, commerce—are prying our fingers off of it.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a Vienna Finger tasted the way it did at my grandma’s house? I bought some quite a few years ago and they had already changed so much I didn’t recognize them. Oddly, now that I am a little older than my grandma’s age when she was passing them out, that connection matters more.

Even though modern grains and fruits and some vegetables don’t taste quite like they did a couple centuries ago, we can still recreate early dishes and get a taste of the past. Seldom in human history has that been flat-out impossible, even with reverse engineering, a practice I employ when I feel too obstinate to buy some pre-made something or other—salad dressing, or packaged seasonings, for example. (I can mix my own damn spice blends, thank you!)

The cure? Cook from scratch—actual flour, sugar, butter, eggs. And try to remember Grandma’s home cooking and, if you’re the cook, make sure, to leave the kids your from-scratch recipes.

Sandy Oliver is a food historian who gardens, cooks, and writes on Islesboro. She may be reached at