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Draining Your Dollars: Consumer Reports' Revealing Info on 8 Overpriced or Unhealthy Food ItemsBy Vicki McClure Davidson
Benjamin Franklin, one of the most frugal-minded men in our nation's history, said, "A penny saved is a penny earned." Back in Ben's day, a penny was far greater in value than it is today. It was nothing to be trifled with; squandering a penny or two a day was much like wasting a dollar or two a day now.
While being frugal means spending less and saving more, sometimes it's just our lack of knowledge or aggressive, seductive marketing that propels us to make stupid choices at the grocery store and we suddenly stop being frugal and start being a spendthrift. Hey, we didn't know!
But, that's where Consumer Reports® leaps into action to educate us on these potential food rip-offs. Because a few dollars saved every day by simply NOT buying deceptively priced items adds up to a lot of money quickly (between $60 and $100 a month).
You don't want to pay extra for something that you don't have to, right? That's akin to ripping up a few dollars into tiny pieces every day and flushing them down the toilet. Sure, it's food, and we all must eat, but we can all make wiser food purchases.
You also need to be aware of deceptive packaging, something that we're sure Ben Franklin would have had harsh words about. (For Franklin's thoughts about wealth and the importance of being frugal, check out our comprehensive collection of his best quotes about frugality, hard work, and money.) A vast amount of packaged food products are now downsized from what they were last year. Maybe the price just went up 3 percent, but the amount of product you are now offered is 12 percent smaller. Deceptive? That's questionable. But it IS effective. According to Harvard Business School marketing professor John T. Gourville, this is a smart tactic for food manufacturers to take because most consumers are less likely to notice a reduction in package/container size than a jump in price. Less outcry, stronger profits.
To be fair, with the rising cost of ingredients, transportation, and energy costs, food manufacturers are trying to save their bottom line during these financially unstable times. Who can blame them for doing this? However, by being quietly creative with packaging (changing the box's shape, adding more air, etc.), they can put in less product and avoid outrage from consumers who've been slammed with "sticker shock."
In just the past year, the price of soybeans has risen 80 percent; wheat, 65 percent; corn, 51 percent; eggs, 40 percent. While US gasoline prices increased an average of 32 percent during the summer and fall months of 2008, record cost drops through the winter offset (or even significantly negated) the previous gas hikes at the pump. So, for now anyway, the cost of gasoline should be computed into lowering food prices, but as we all know, they're not. There are rumors that gas prices will be rising again, whether it's due to a proposed gas tax increase (thank you, Washington politicians! The "hope and change" we were all promised...) or because of decreased production in the oil-producing countries. Time will tell. In the meantime, that very lack of knowledge of what the future holds will prompt food producers to err on the side of their profits.
Another important consideration is the health risk from different foods. Some foods, while claiming to be safer and thus, more costly than their cheaper counterparts, were determined in some cases to not be any safer. The potential dangers to health, such as sodium levels, mercury content, and salmonella, were evaluated by Consumer Reports when applicable.
Here are eight overpriced or unhealthy food items that were purchased, tested, and then cited in the report or on the Consumer Reports website. Cited prices and specific sizes are 2008 averages.
Sugar Free Oreo Chocolate Sandwich Cookies: These cookies have nearly as many calories per serving (160 vs. 150) and just as much fat (about 7 g) as regular Oreos. To make matters worse, they are, on average, nearly double in price.
Organic Chickens: Organic chickens average about $3 to $5 per pound. However, despite their claims, tests conducted by Consumer Reports revealed that premium and organic brands were more likely to harbor MORE salmonella than conventional broilers—meat safety is usually the main reason people buy the organic version. Regular chicken averages around $1 a pound and appears to be a wiser choice. While many organic-meat companies are usually health conscience, it's difficult to pinpoint those that aren't, especially since the demand for organic meats has risen and more companies are producing and selling organic products. On average, all organic food is priced 50 percent higher than their non-organic counterparts, but you can easily spend 100 to 300 percent or more for organic milk and meats.
Kellogg's Froot Loops Cereal: The amount of cereal now in the box is 17 ounces, whereas it was 19.5 ounces not too long ago. That's a 14 percent drop in cereal.
Campbell's Select Chicken Soup with Egg Noodles: Consumer Reports tested this soup and determined that not only was it pricey at $1.32 per serving, but that Lipton Soup Secrets Chicken Soup tasted better and cost only 28 cents per serving, a significant price difference.
Orville Redenbacher's Light Butter Microwave Popcorn: This brand of microwave popcorn was close in quality and cost much more than Target's Market Pantry Butter Light Microwave Popcorn.
Kraft BBQ Sauce: This sauce, even though is it the current top-selling BBQ sauce in the United States, is loaded with sodium, wasn't overly tasty, and is more expensive than KC Masterpiece Sauce. In a Consumer Reports test of eight national, celebrity, and famous-kitchen BBQ sauces, the winner was KC Masterpiece for flavor and price.
Instant Oatmeal: Not only do packages of instant oatmeal cost much more per serving than non-instant, but the vitamin levels drop drastically and their texture is mushier. Consumer Reports found that the longer-cooking oatmeals tasted best, and they don't have the high sodium and sugar levels that the instant varieties do. For those people who still prefer buying flavored instant oatmeal for their convenience, the brand that scored highest in the Consumer Reports tests was Market Pantry from Target, determined to be the best-tasting flavored instant by a narrow margin and costing only 17 cents per serving. Also recommended was Kashi because of its high fiber and low sodium count.
Canned Light Tuna: Mercury levels in all brands of the more expensive canned light tuna were determined to be the same, if not higher, than regular canned tuna. Paying more for premium light tuna does not, according to tests, decrease the health dangers. For children and pregnant women, this makes intake potentially dangerous.
Other seafood species, such as salmon, tilapia, shrimp, and clams, have consistently low mercury levels. Most people, including pregnant women and young children, can safely eat them every day. Wild salmon has been determined to significantly minimize exposure to a variety of pollutants and is considered one of the safest fish choices. Other low-mercury species, including sardines, oysters, crawfish, pollock, herring, flounder, sole, Atlantic mackerel, scallops, crab, hake, Atlantic croaker, and mullet, can be consumed safely from once a week to daily, depending on the person's body weight and the species of fish.
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