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What bugs you about supermarket packaging?

Sneaky packaging can tempt you into buying products you wouldn’t have otherwise picked up, while masking information that may make you think twice. Which packaging tactics leave you ticked off?

We’ve investigated tricks and tactics that supermarkets and manufacturers use on their product packaging, many of which have been reported to us by Which? members.

I’ve included a few examples below – you can see the full list in the December issue of Which? magazine.

Poor-value gift sets

Some toiletry gift sets offer such poor value for money that you’re effectively paying for the box it comes in.

We found a £6.50 Dove gift set of products that can be bought separately for £4.40. Paying £2.10 extra for a box doesn’t seem worth it to me.

Unilever told us the shop decides the in-store selling price, and that the cost of manufacturing gift packs is much higher.

Tiny portion sizes that make products look healthier

Most products say on the pack how much of your reference intake (RI) of salt, sugar, fat and saturated fat they provide. But Goodfella’s pizzas only give the RI for one quarter of a pizza – even the 10-inch ‘Extra Thin’ range.

Personally, I’d always eat at least half a pizza that size, and 80% of Which? members (non-pizza eaters excepted) agree. Goodfella’s said it’s changing its labelling and the portion size given to half a pizza.

‘Light’ products that aren’t actually healthy

To be labelled as ‘light’, ‘lite’ or ‘reduced’, most products need to have 30% less of one key nutrient (such as calories or fat) compared with the standard version. But more than two in five Which? members have purchased a product labelled ‘light’ or ‘reduced fat’ only to find it wasn’t as healthy as they thought.

Flora Buttery Light contains high amounts of both fat (45g per 100g) and saturated fat (10g per 100g). Unilever told us that Flora Buttery Light complies with labelling regulations.

We think it’s misleading to call products ‘light’ when they’re still high in fat, sugar or saturated fat, particularly when they don’t use traffic-light nutrition labelling on the pack to indicate this.

Which of these packaging tricks bugs you the most – or is your biggest frustration something we haven’t covered here?


” Unilever told us that Flora Buttery Light complies with labelling regulations.” translated into English means “We know what we’re doing is naughty, but the pathetic rules let us get away with it “

This is an example of where the traffic light nutrition labelling helps make us aware of what the manufacturer is up to. In an earlier Conversation we were told that the EC wants the UK to abandon traffic light labelling. I assume that what this means is that companies are putting pressure on the EU to get us to abandon what is a simple and easy to understand system that helps consumers to understand what is in their food.

As long as a claim complies with regulations, there’s nothing that can be done to stop them making it. The issue here is that industry lobbyists influence the regulations. I don’t know if it’s still allowed but for a long time herbal remedies were permitted to claim they were “traditionally used” for certain indications – with no requirement to point out that tradition absolutely does not validate that use.

Sophie Gilbert says:
14 November 2014

One example I’ve seen is gift wrapping paper rolled around a cardboard cylinder that makes you think you’ve got a reasonable lot there when if fact you don’t, and it isn’t necessarily the cheapo manufacturers who resort to this tactic. I was completely fooled like that at Jenners years ago. I thought that for once I would buy nicer Christmas paper and it’s only when I got home that I realised how little I’d bought, even if it gave the length of the roll on the label, duuuhh. (What superb quality though…) You can’t fool all of the people all of the time, but you can fool most of the people some of the time, and some people all of the time, and that’s what manufacturers bank on.

The cardboard cylinder does stop the paper being crushed in your shopping bag, and you can use the tube to sow sweet peas in. It’s not all bad. 🙂

Sophie Gilbert says:
15 November 2014

You’re right, malcolm r. What I meant was that the diameter of the cylinder is bigger in some rolls than in others, to make the rolls appear bigger. I saw some again today in a shop, small roll length, large diameter cylinder, and bigger price to top it all. Same with eg toilet rolls or kitchen rolls.

(Sow sweet peas in them? I’ll give this idea to a friend of mine who’s got a big garden (mine is around 2 sqm, with too much shade). He uses toilet roll cylinders for moulds to make candles!)

“Fish found in surprising products” mentions the issue as only affecting vegetarians. Allergy to fish is not uncommon and these products are posing a risk to people who may have an allergic reaction and not realise what the cause was.

I just received the December issue today and would like to comment on item 10 in the section on Packaging Tricks – ‘Fish found in surprising products’. Yes, I worked in the food industry for many years and have also been a member of CA. However, like most people I like to see good balanced articles and this seems slightly ignorant. Surprisingly to you perhaps Worcestershire Sauce has never been free from fish products since it has a base of anchovy. Caesar salad dressing usually contains anchovy as well. It is interesting that fish gelatine is becoming more widely used. This is primarily I believe to replace beef or pork gelatine which is less acceptable to many groups. Its use would normally be listed unless it is a processing aid and if not mentioned it may be better to state that the product is ‘not suitable for vegetarians’?

Everyone it seems wants to ban or charge for plastic carrier bags, except for me because I think they are useful and have multiple secondary uses. The ones I get never end up stuck over a dolphins nose. However supermarket packaging seems perfectly acceptable, even though there is far too much of it, much more waste than carrier bags, and it has no secondary useful purpose.
If “which” wants to run a really useful campaign start trying to dramatically reduce packaging and lay off carrier bags.

Brynley Newton says:
29 November 2014

When will nutrition info. on packaging indicate the amount of trans-fat? In 2010 the NHS watchdog NICE urged a total ban on trans fats in food so as to significantly reduce heart disease and certain cancers. Nearly 10 years ago Denmark took action and now New York, Canada, Austria, Switzerland, Brazil and many other countries have followed.
There is no “safe” level of trans-fat. In Britain the only way to find out from the nutrition information
the amount of trans-fat is to deduct from the total fat the saturated fat, the monounsaturated fat and the polyunsaturated fat. Any balance remaining is trans-fat. Why is it so difficult to simply indicate this on the packaging? Can WHICH help make this happen?

I am not aware that trans-fats are used as ingredients of food produced in the UK, though watch out for imports.

Trans-fats would be listed as ‘partially hydrogenated vegetable oil’ if included. Naturally occurring fats do contain a small amount of trans-fats but the amount is not considered to be a problem.

Brynley Newton says:
30 November 2014

The law requires only that total fat and saturated fat are shown on packaging. Trans-fats are hardly ever indicated and are widely used in Britain.

I am referring to the list of ingredients, not the nutrition labels. I have been avoiding hydrogenated vegetable oils for many years because I learned of the problem of trans-fats before the public was warned about them. I still look at the labels but most manufacturers have stopped using them.

If there is no mention of hydrogenated vegetable oils then the only trans-fats are those that occur naturally, and there is not much that can be done about them other than to avoid using the dairy products and meats that contain them in food.

I forgot to mention that it would be possible to state the amount of trans-fats in foods. It might help us learn that fatty meats and dairy products contain them.

Brynley Newton says:
30 November 2014

You are right about the requirements for the ingredients list. Unfortunately, most trans-fats are in the catering industry which doesn’t have to declare its ingredients. Worrying levels have been found in, for example, pineapple tart, Empire biscuits and raspberry tarts in Lidls, Bradfords teacakes in Morrison’s and Viscount biscuits in the Co-op.

This story first appeared in the Daily Mail in 2010. It was prompted by the mention of hydrogenated vegetable oil in the ingredient lists, so there was no attempt to conceal anything.

There is a big difference between hydrogenated oils and partially hydrogenated oils, even though this has escaped the Daily Mail and many of the websites that mention trans-fats. Hydrogenated oils are saturated fats, like the saturated fats that occur in meat and dairy produce. They are not a problem, other than that we should not eat much saturated fat.

Trans-fats are the PARTIALLY hydrogenated oils, or trans-fats. If you find partially hydrogenated oils in an ingredient list, then avoid that product. I shop mainly in Tesco and I don’t pay much attention to junk food, but it is years since I last saw mention of partially hydrogenated oils.

wavechange, “we should not eat much saturated fat.” There was a recent American study reported in the paper that claims eating saturated fat is not the problem so far assumed. If I remember correctly they fed volunteers with 3 times the recommended amount with no ill effects. They claim that carbohydrates – potato, rice, sugar – are more of a problem. Conflicting information on diet reinforces my personal food intake strategy – a balanced combination of what I like.

Incidentally, I don’t know if American recommended daily amounts are different from ours, bearing in mind the size of their meals?

As I see it, the NHS advice is to eat a balanced diet, Malcolm. ‘Traffic light’ and other nutritional labels help make us aware of what our foods contain. What we eat during a particular meal or on a day matters far less than what we eat over a month or a year.

Those who are keen to condemn diets that are predominantly carbohydrate have a collection of articles claiming that saturated fat is not a problem, though they conveniently ignore the fact that the balance of evidence still suggests we limit our intake of saturated fats. Most of the historical criticism should probably have been attributed to trans-fats.

The reason we hydrogenate vegetable oils is to convert them into the useful soft solids we know as fats. Wartime shortages of butter resulted in the introduction of margarine, which was full of trans-fats, and of course this was used in baking and many foods. When it eventually became clear that trans-fats were a health risk when eaten in larger amounts, the UK food industry responded quite positively.

If you focus on unrefined cereals and vegetables, carbohydrate is great, but many eat ‘junk carbohydrate’ including white bread, white rice, the majority of breakfast cereals and the like.

Hi Brynley, an EU review of whether this should go ahead or not is due out very soon. Under the EU Food Information Regulations, the European Commission was required to look at the feasibility of labelling or other measures such as a ban.

As there is no nutritional benefit from trans fats, we think it is better to require them to be banned rather than just label them. As mentioned, some do occur naturally (eg. In dairy products) which would not be included.

Many manufacturers, retailers and caterers have voluntarily removed artificial trans fats, so we think that they should no longer be allowed at all. While they should no longer be in mainstream branded products they could still be in some more niche products and these may be consumed by more vulnerable consumers.

We will therefore respond to report once it is out and work with our sister organisations across Europe, calling for them to be removed altogether.

Thanks for this information, Alex. The evidence that trans-fats are harmful is clear and the sooner there is a total ban the better. Continuing to use them is little more than modern day food adulteration with cheap ingredients that could be harmful.

Perhaps we should be looking at the amount of natural trans-fats in meat and dairy products. Small amounts of trans-fats in our diet are not usually regarded as a problem, but since they are found in foods rich in saturated fat, this is a good reason to avoid eating much saturated fat.

JonDee says:
30 November 2014

Trying to follow a caffeine free diet I had already found out that Decaffinated Coffee was really just reduced caffeine coffee, and could still contain quite a bit of caffeine. However, Kenco Millicano Caff Free coffee looked to be just what I was after. What could “Caff Free” mean except totally free of caffeine? So I bought some without reading the small print only to find out it is just another decaffinated coffee and still contains caffeine.

Dave Parker says:
3 December 2014

In your December article on packaging tricks you said in No 10 that Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce contained fish that was not labelled. I don’t know where you got your bottle from but mine, in the list of ingredients, quite clearly says ‘Fish (anchovies)’!

TrishS says:
6 December 2014

Paper tissues: boxes have suddenly become smaller – as in less deep! Why on earth?
In a big branch of Tesco’s all of the non-mansize tissues are now in smaller boxes, only 72 tissues per box, both own brand and Kleenex varieties, whereas before there were 100 in a box. And I bet they are still charging the same for 72 as they used to for boxes of 100!
What is more, many people, myself included, own tissue box covers which fitted the 100-size box perfectly but are now far to big for the 72 size!

Manufacturers, please go back to listing allergies separately on packaging.

Many items now say allergies are highlighted in bold print. This is often very difficult to see especially when a lot of items are listed or the print is small.

If I do not have time to read the label properly, the product goes straight back on the shelf.

I’ve just opened a packet of Thorntons millionaire’s shortcake pieces and before opening I thought, how did they get 10 into a rectangular shaped packet – there really should be 12 in this shape. On opening, there were 4 along the centre and 3 turned sideways along the top and bottom of the plastic insertshowing that plastic is much cheaper to produce than chocolate items. This comment also applies to their big boxes of chocolate as when you open them the space between and around the chocolates is excessive. As for easter eggs, these are the worst value for chocolate v the space they are packed in.