6 Subtle Ways You’re Getting Screwed at the Grocery Store

Yesterday I talked about sell-by dates,  and #2 on this list below is about the same topic.  #4 is the one that has always bothered me the most.  It’s bad enough that Frito-Lay has more than 1/3 of the market in salty snacks (and I’m guessing 2/3 of the market in potato chips) and they charge ridiculous prices ($1.49 for a snack bag of chips that can’t cost more than a quarter to produce!) but when you buy a full-sized bag and it’s not even 1/2 full you’re really getting screwed.

And the article from cracked.com doesn’t get into packaging for expensive OTC items like Flonase and Prilosec, where more than 75% of what you buy is packaging which is to make it a tad harder to steal and also take up more shelf space.   A bottle of Afrin ($6.99) and Flonase ($24.99) are about the same size but the Flonase package is more than twice as large.   You’re literally paying for packaging.


If you are a huge manufacturer selling units in the tens of millions, shaving just a penny or two off of each bag of cookies or can of cocktail weenies can make a huge difference on your bottom line. So while we’d like to think the free market is all about selling good quality at a good price, the difference between profit and bankruptcy can in fact lie in the seller’s ability to screw you an ounce or a nickel at a time.

Their little tricks are everywhere, and believe us when we say they add up. We’re talking about things like …

#6. Bottom Dimples (And Other Sneaky Packaging Tricks)

If you haven’t discovered it for yourself already, it’s probably because you’re not a clumsy oaf and have never dropped a jar of peanut butter on the ground. Because if you had, you might have observed that the bottom of that jar looked as if someone with a tiny fist punched it:

The Ripoff:

That sneaky dimple was put there for one reason: to put about two fewer ounces of peanut butter in the jar without the customer noticing. But manufacturers are keeping the prices the same, and sometimes even raising them. And peanut butter makers aren’t the only ones pulling this crap, either.

A toilet roll might have the same number of sheets, but the sheets are an inch shorter, or worse, thinner. Cereal boxes are getting thinner while remaining the same height and width, to give the illusion of containing the same amount. A Hershey’s chocolate bar has gotten an ounce and a half lighter yet sports the word “Giant,” presumably because Hershey’s thinks chocolate lovers are morons.

And until the masses rise up with pitchforks and torches demanding their ounces of peanut butter/chocolate/toilet paper back, we’re just going to have to keep on taking it.

#5. Tricking You Into Paying More (For Something It Cost the Same to Make)

One of the easiest ways to grab a little extra cash from poor schmucks like us is to charge more for products that don’t cost more (or maybe even cost less) to make. Take sunscreen, for example. Even people who spend 95 percent of their time on the Internet need to get outside to buy a taco every now and then. And when they do, you’d better believe sunscreen is a must for their soft, supple skin.

Let’s say you’re the one going on a big outdoor adventure, maybe urban Rollerblading or what have you, so you go shopping for some sun protection. The first thing you notice is that the SPF protection ranges from 5 to 70. Naturally, you want to buy the hell out of the 70 so you can tell the sun to go screw itself.

Chances are that 70 SPF sunscreen costs more than the other, but that’s OK, because it’s protecting you more, right? You take it to the register, hand over your money and slap that lotion on your skin, feeling superior knowing you just bested a star.

Yeah, that’ll keep the cancer at bay.

The Ripoff:

Unlike an encounter with a high-end prostitute, you shouldn’t have to pay more for a higher SPF sunscreen, because lotion is lotion and it all costs the same to make, no matter what level of protection it offers you. But sellers assume that once a consumer sees the bigger number on the SPF protection, he’ll be willing to shell out more. And they’re right.

In this case, we’re talking about a few dollars that could add up big time in the long run. Because some consumers might not buy the better protection for their kids in the interest of saving a dollar, and those kids could be vulnerable to malignant melanoma later in life, which is why one British retailer announced it would no longer charge more for the higher-SPF lotions. BURN!

The British Isles go through nearly four bottles of sunscreen every year.

It’s the same thing with dairy products that have been whipped for fluffiness, such as yogurt and cream cheese. You think you’re paying more for a decadent, creamy treat, but you’re actually getting less of the product than you would if you just bought the regular version, on account of the fact that the extra creaminess is due to the addition of a whole bunch of decadent, creamy air.

Hey, speaking of which …

#4. Bags Half Full of Air

It should come as no surprise that Americans are super in love with potato chips. We’re so in love with them, in fact, that in 2009 we spent $2 billion more on chips than the federal government’s entire budget for researching and developing new sources of energy. Which is probably OK, since any new sources of energy would have probably just been spent driving our fat asses back to the store for more chips.


The point is we can safely assume that just about everyone reading this article has opened a bag of chips and discovered that the greasy bag of salty goodness was just as full of nondelicious nothing as it was with food. And if there’s anything we hate more than paying for water, it’s paying for chipified air.

The Ripoff:

In the food industry, the practice of only halfway-filling containers with actual food is called “slack fill.” Chip-makers want a cushion of air around their products as protection, because nothing sucks more than getting a bag full of smooshed chip bits, except maybe getting a bag full of empty, which is what it seems like sometimes.

What the actual fuck?

The problem is that even though the FDA allows for some air space as food protection, sneaky manufacturers have been more than willing to abuse the system by halfway filling comically large bags with their products. So you think you’re getting a big ol’ bag of goodness when you’re really not getting all that much …

… and half a bag of chips.

In fact, the problem is so bad that several groups have appealed to the FDA to crack down on the chronic over-slack fillers — not just because consumers are getting cheated, but because all that extra packaging is killing a lot of trees to basically package nothing.

#3. Charging You for Added Water

Let’s say you’re on a health kick and you decide it’s time to buy some fruits and vegetables. For the sake of this entry, let’s say you’re not a fan of fresh things and opt for the canned variety. Maybe you’re stocking up your bomb/zombie apocalypse shelter — who are we to judge? So you load your cart with canned peas, carrots and green beans, pay your cashier, head home and get started on the nastiest casserole of all time.

Throw some sardines up in that bitch. You know you want to.

What you probably didn’t realize was that the 14 ounces of green beans in that can weren’t actually 14 ounces of green beans, but probably nine ounces of beans and five ounces of water, and that the FDA lets manufacturers lump those numbers together into one. Which is a plus — if you’re in the market for green bean flavored water.

Oh, and if you’re buying meat? Same thing. Only more disturbing.

Everything above has been dead for weeks.

The Ripoff:

When food manufacturers put their food in a can, they often put a little something else in there to protect it. Sometimes it’s brine and sometimes it’s syrup, but most of the time it’s just plain old water. The tricky part is that when they label the can, they’re only required to include the net quantity, which is the combined weight of the food and the water, rather than the drained weight of the food alone. A certain percentage of the net quantity is supposed to be the actual food, but until cans start coming in “clear,” most consumers have no idea how much of their food is actually food until they get home.

But let’s say you’re wise to this canned trickery, and you go for fresh food instead. Good for you. But you’re still not home free in the “paying for secret water” department. Especially if you eat something we here at Cracked like to call “meat.”

*Contains less than 20 percent beef.*

There is a practice in food production known as plumping, which basically means injecting meat with saltwater. Food manufacturers say the water adds flavor and juiciness to the animal flesh, which may be true. But remember that unlike canned foods, which are usually sold at fixed prices, meat is sold by its weight. And when 15 percent of the chicken you paid for is actually saltwater,you are most definitely getting ripped off.

Replace the water with oil, fat and breading, and suddenly you’ve got a national treasure.

#2. Expiration Dates (But Not What You Think)

You just bought a whole heap of chicken and are currently siphoning off the water for a tasty drink. And because nothing goes better with chicken broth than cow juice, you grab some milk from the refrigerator. And that’s when you notice that the milk is expired, according to the “use by” date on the jug. Even though the milk looks OK, smells OK, maybe even tastes OK, you throw it out. Because who wants to mess with curdled milk clods sloshing around in his stomach?

Pass that shit on to one of the kids. They’ll drink anything.

The Ripoff:

Unless your senses tell you the milk has soured, it’s probably just fine.

When we said “expiration dates,” you probably thought we were going to warn you against grocery stores selling you expired food as fresh. And that does go on. But once we get it home, it’s the opposite problem — throwing away perfectly good food after we bought it, because an arbitrary date says it has “expired.” This is a big reason why Americans throw away more than 96 billion pounds of food at different points across the supply chain — a good part of which is perfectly fine.

Guess which part.

Clearly we’re not telling you to eat spoiled meat, or spoiled anything. But in many cases the onlything that goes downhill after the date stamped on the package is taste and texture. So if it tastes fine, it is fine. Has your sour cream separated with that gross layer of liquid on top? Hey, try stirring that shit first.

What you should say when you see a “sell by” date is, “Says who?” Because unless you’re buying yourself baby food, the federal government has nothing to do with that expiration date. Neither does any other regulatory body, which is why it’s 100 percent legal for crafty grocers to re-label things as they please. And why the USDA actually advises us to use some freaking common sense when it comes to throwing out perfectly good grub rather than going by anything we see stamped on the label.

What most people don’t know is that “use by” dates aren’t so much an indication of when the food is officially toxic, just when it’s starting to lose that not-so-fresh feeling. And stores know that if consumers knew exactly how long food lasted, they would simply stock up on it and not buy any more for months. Sell-by dates mean customers will fall into a pattern of buying goods, meaning the store is able to predict when customers will buy a certain product and adjust stock accordingly.

“You are cattle to us.”

NOTE: This does NOT apply to medication — expired medicine should go in the trash. But expired Fruity Pebbles? Hell, eat it and see what happens.

#1. Tricking You Into Pouring Laundry Detergent Down the Drain

Has this ever happened to you? You’re about to put your granny’s nighties in the washing machine, but as you measure out the laundry detergent, it spills over, drenching your hand, the machine and your granny’s finest silk teddy in gel-like soap. Isn’t that the worst?

With today’s low textile prices, why wash clothing at all?

After a few dozen mishaps like that, you’ll find yourself with nothing but a smidgen of detergent left, and since you have no plans for washing teeny-tiny baby socks, you throw the whole jug out. Congratulations, Mr. Belvedere. You just played right into the detergent manufacturers’ hands.

The Ripoff:

Even though detergent companies provide a fill line for consumers to use as a guide as they measure out their soap, that line is practically invisible. For one thing, it’s often on the interior of the cup itself, as if you’d be able to see it once you began pouring the liquid. And for another, the line is usually just a raised ridge that’s the same color as the cup, so your depth perception has to be eagle-sharp for you to spot it.

And because we can’t see that imperceptible line, we tend to overpour our detergent, because who doesn’t want extra-clean clothes, right? And detergent makers know that, obviously.

But even if your favorite brand of detergent has a clearly marked measuring cup, there’s an excellent chance you’re still using way too much detergent to do the job. One appliance repairman even suggests that by using the detergent boxes’ recommended doses, you’re actually damaging your clothes and your washing machine with too much soap.

The smell and feel of freshly laundered towels is only slightly less addictive than crack.

He suggests that depending on the hardness of their water, most people could get away with using one-eighth to one-half of what the box label says to use. Otherwise, you’re just gumming up the works and ruining your Girbauds.

Of course, now the big thing is 2X concentrated detergents, which cost twice as much as the old detergent but come with the claim that you need to use only half as much (it’s good for the environment!). Hey, did you notice that the fill caps are the same size as before? There’s a new, lower fill line waaaay down there telling you to only fill the cup a third of the way or so. Consumers tend to instead use the amount they’ve been using their whole lives, thus doubling your waste and the manufacturer’s profit.