Smart Balance’s buttery spread is facing a backlash over ‘skimpflation’

The company is going back to its old formula after watchdogs and consumers noticed it had watered it down.
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Morning Brew

· 4 min read

By now, you’ve probably got a handle on shrinkflation, the portmanteau for when manufacturers make their products smaller rather than raise prices. Now it’s time to meet shrinkflation’s mustache-twirling cousin, skimpflation: This is when a product stays the same size but is made more cheaply, either by switching to lower-cost ingredients or decreasing the portion of an expensive ingredient while increasing the portion of a cheaper one.

Edgar Dworsky, a longtime consumer advocate and lawyer, has documented cases of shrinkflation for decades, most recently, the case of cereal brands downsizing their family-size and giant-size boxes. But he says that while shoppers increasingly notice when products have been downsized, determining that a product has been reformulated is far more difficult.

Skimpflation is “very hard to detect” because consumers “really don’t know when a manufacturer has changed the recipe,” Dworsky told Retail Brew. “This is more sly and clever than shrinkflation. At least with shrinkflation, you can see the numbers right on the package.”

But sometimes consumers do notice. And if Conagra thought no one would when it reformulated some of its Smart Balance products recently, it was in for a big surprise.

Start newsing the spread. Dworsky documented the way Smart Balance has reformulated its buttery spread in a recent story on his website, Mouse Print, that showed the old and new products side-by-side. The new version, like the old one, is in a 15-oz. container with a nearly identical label. But…

  • In small print at the bottom of the label, it notes that the new version has 39% vegetable oils, down from 64% before.
  • Now, the ingredient list has “water” as the first (and most plentiful) ingredient and “vegetable oil blend” second; before, it was the inverse.
  • The new label boasts it has 320 milligrams of Omega-3 ALA, down from 400 milligrams previously.

Consumers may not have noticed the changes on the label, but they did notice the changes to the product itself. And when they did, they put down their butter knives—and picked up their pitchforks.

Profit margarines: “The New Coke of Butter Spreads,” wrote one customer from Oregon, “Stick,” in a one-star review on the brand’s website. “You have ruined your original version; won’t buy this watery, tasteless disaster ever again.”

“This weird paste doesn’t melt anymore,” wrote George from Boulder, Colorado, in another one-star review. “Why the change? Wait, I know…water is cheaper than oil, but charge the same price!...Shareholders rejoice!”

  • Of the 1,237 reviews on the Smart Balance spread product page at the time of this publication, 1,131 are one-star.
  • It has a 1.2 (out of five) rating.
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Another variety of the spread, Smart Balance Extra Virgin Olive Oil, went through a similar reformulation, and its new formulation also lists that it now has only 39% of vegetable oils, down from 64%. And despite its name, the label now says it is made “with a hint of extra virgin olive oil”—with the first four words smaller than the rest. (It used to say “made with extra virgin olive oil.”)

“Hate the new formula which I assume was cost driven,” wrote “tmjuechter” from Michigan in a review on the product website. “Your label gives it away, moving from ‘made with extra virgin olive oil’ to ‘with a hint of extra virgin olive oil.’ Of course the ‘extra virgin olive oil’ is in big, bold print as it has always been–Quite intentionally deceiving.”

Reversing course: “We made changes to some Smart Balance products to make them easier to spread,” Daniel Hare, senior director of communication and external relations at Conagra Brands, told us in an email. “We have heard the feedback from consumers and have decided to return to the previous recipes in the coming months.”

Dworsky is less surprised that Conagra is reversing course on the Smart Balance spreads than at how dramatically it made the unannounced change.

“Did they really think they could just release this reformulated product with almost 40% less oil?” Dworsky asked. “And, ‘We’ll see if people complain or not?’ It’s crazy to me.”

Skimp cocktail: Dworsky points to other instances of skimpflation, too:

  • Hungry-Man Double Chicken Bowls—two fried chicken patties over macaroni and cheese—recently reduced the amount of protein highlighted on its label from 39 grams to 33 grams…but it still comes in a 15-oz. box. Conagra, which owns this brand too, didn’t respond to Dworsky’s query about where the protein went.

Scott 1000 toilet paper, has, as Dworsky has documented before, made its toilet paper sheets smaller, which is shrinkflation. However, on a skimpflation note, he recently calculated that the paper itself appears to be ~20% thinner now than in 2006.

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.