The New York Times is calling it "food inflation," and profiles a woman who bought three boxes of pasta for dinner as usual - only to come up short. Turns out those 16 ounce boxes of pasta are now only 13 or 14 ounces.
I have noticed this, too; Barilla boxes are the worst culprits. The box stays the same size, but it's only half full.
Even more insulting is when companies shrink their product size, and claim that they are doing you a favor. I have long felt this way about "100 calorie packs," because they cost about ten times as much as the regular product, and have more packaging to boot. Other examples cited in the NYT article include Saltines being marketed in "fresh packs." Instead of four long columns, the box has eight shorter columns - but fewer Saltines overall.
This ongoing shrinkage just makes it all the more important to evaluate your purchases correctly. Conventional wisdom is that off-brands, bulk foods, and larger packages are always cheaper. But this is definitely not the case! In fact, manufacturers have been sneakily playing off those beliefs for years.
Three real-life examples from my own grocery shopping experiences:
A few months ago I actually priced out the bulk granola in the bins, versus the boxed granola on the cereal aisle. It was exactly the same price per ounce!
Given which, I opted for the boxed cereal. Even though it has more packaging (and I hate packaging), I have been waging an ongoing war with pantry moths for the last few years, and bulk foods always carry that risk.
I buy quick oatmeal (the kind you can microwave in 2 minutes). The price per ounce for bulk oatmeal, store-brand oatmeal, and genuine Quaker oats is constantly in flux. This is where it pays to really comparison shop, because the oatmeal containers are not all the same size!
Every time I buy oatmeal, I have to do a bit of quick calculation. Take the price and divide it by the number of ounces in the container, and there's your per-ounce price. Last week the Quaker oats were cheaper, because they were on sale. The week before, store-brand oats were cheaper than either Quaker or bulk food. It's never the same price twice!
I put walnuts in my oatmeal every morning. Usually I buy whole walnuts, and chop them myself, to save money. This week, big bags of whole walnuts and small bags of chopped walnuts were both on sale. When I did the math, I found out that chopped walnuts were (mysteriously) cheaper.
As is so often the case, a calculator is your best friend in these situations. I bought a calculator for about five bucks at an office supply store, and it has paid for itself many times over!