Half-Empty Food Packages Harm Consumers, Environment


WASHINGTON—A biggish box of Hamburger Helper only half full of food. A giant box of Ginger Snaps half full of air. A solitary chicken quesadilla in a Lean Cuisine box that could easily fit two. The food industry calls it "slack fill." But the Center for Science in the Public Interest calls it a form of deception—and an environmental nightmare to boot. The nonprofit nutrition and food safety watchdog group is urging the Food and Drug Administration and state attorneys general to crack down on illegal slack fill in food packages.

What seems like a full bag of ginger snaps before opening the box is actually a half-full combination of food and air— what the industry calls "slack fill." CSPI calls it deception.

Photo Credit: Stephen Schmidt

The federal government already has regulations on the books regarding slack fill, which is defined as the difference between the capacity of a container and the volume of product inside. Those rules are meant to restrict slack fill to those situations where some air in the packaging actually helps protect the contents, or where some settling of the product makes a little slack fill unavoidable. But according to CSPI, food manufacturers and the regulators who oversee them don’t seem overly concerned with the spirit of those regulations.

"It would be disheartening, even shocking, if it weren’t so commonplace," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "But as consumers we’ve almost come to expect that our food packages will be half full of food and half full of air. Slack fill is just one trick that food marketers employ to make us thing we’re getting more for our money than we are."

A box of Betty Crocker Wholesome Hamburger Helper is roughly 19 centimeters tall, 12 cm wide, and three-and-a-half cm deep. If it were filled to the very top, it could accommodate nearly 800 cubic cm of food. Instead, a small plastic bag of macaroni and a flat packet of sauce mix take up only about half of the package. The box does include the 5.8 ounces of food described on the label, but would the company dare do this if the package were see-through, asks CSPI?

And what of the environmental cost of shipping half-full containers around the country and world? "If food companies cut packages of Ginger Snaps or Hamburger Helper in half, what now takes two trucks to ship would only take one," Jacobson said. "Some of us might appreciate some extra space in our cupboards, too. I wish the Food and Drug Administration or state attorneys general would take steps to ensure that consumers are getting their money’s worth at the grocery store."

"Cut the Slack" is the lead editorial in the April issue of CSPI’s flagship publication, Nutrition Action Healthletter. Introductory subscriptions are $10 a year. 

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Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at] or Ariana Stone (astone[at]