Unilever ice cream

The papers love a good pack size reduction story. Everyone from the Guardian to the Mail has run with our revelation last week that Unilever is turning its shrink ray to its ice creams in the name of healthy eating. The Daily Star was fuming, branding news that the size (but not price) of a Magnum Almond is being cut, by a third, an ‘ice cream swindle’.

It’s not just Unilever. There was outrage in 2013 when we revealed Mars and Snickers bars were shrinking but prices were staying the same. Cadbury sharing bags have shrunk considerably in recent years, resulting in huge average price rises for brands such as Buttons. And last January, six-packs of Creme Eggs were axed in favour of five-packs, upping the price of an egg by 6p.

And it’s not just pack sizes that are being shrunk either; recipes are changing to help lower costs too. In 2014, William Grant cut the abv of Green Mark Vodka from 40% to 38%. Last year, Mondelez stopped using Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate in Creme Eggs, a move that may have contributed to (but was by no means solely responsible for) huge losses for the brand last Easter.

Sky News anchorwoman Kay Burley was apoplectic about the recipe change and shrinking pack sizes when the channel followed up the story earlier this month. It’s easy to see why shrinking packs and recipe changes get so many so hot under the collar: they nearly always mean better margins for brands. Yet more proof of rip-off Britain, say the tabloids.

But that doesn’t mean we should always disregard brand owners who reduce pack sizes. Unilever’s move last week is part of its Sustainable Living Plan in which it is capping the calorie count of single-serve ice creams at 250. The Sustainable Living Plan is a euphemism, of course, for tackling obesity. But it’s a meaningful risk it’s taking in doing so.

Yes, in some cases smaller pack sizes might mean bigger margins. But it’s not the case that Unilever is simply pocketing the savings. In the case of Ben & Jerry’s mini tubs, for example, the rsp is coming down from £2.04 to £1.50. Other lines are being dropped altogether because they simply could not meet the calorie targets. As we revealed last week, the net cost to Unilever is at least £5m.

While other manufacturers have gone down the route of reformulation – as we revealed last week Kellogg’s is lowering the sugar content in its Frosties and Coco Pops and Coca-Cola is reformulating Coca-Cola Life in a similarly motivated attempt to address obesity concerns – Unilever’s smaller packs can be every bit as meaningful in tackling obesity.

That’s because smaller packs mean we’re eating less (unless we buy two packs, of course). And The Grocer has proof. As we will reveal in our 10 Things You Need To Know About… Snacking later this week, 54% of Brits admit they tend to consume more when the food they’re eating comes in a bigger pack. So smaller packs can help curb the amount of sugar we’re eating. In this age of obesity, that’s got to be a good thing, hasn’t it?