Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

To combat 'usage-flation,' product labels should state unambiguously that any usage instructions are simply recommendations.eldar nurkovic/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Last month I wrote about how the same amount of Gatorade powder apparently now yields one whole litre less. Nothing about the product has changed – not the formulation, not the amount in the can – just the label, which says the can makes seven litres of drink, compared with eight previously.

This isn’t shrinkflation, the phenomenon that has become all too common in this economy. This is something else – an expert calls it “usage-flation.”

Seven is a smaller number than eight. If you make seven litres of Gatorade from that can, you use it up quicker. Or imagine you’re shopping for a large Gatorade party or whatever it is that kids do nowadays. If you see that a can makes seven litres, you might buy more cans than if that can made eight litres.

Lots of people have since written to me with more examples of similar practices, involving everything from powdered cleaning solvents to oats. I haven’t independently corroborated those claims, so I’ll just assume only half of them are true.

I say we need to do something about this.

No, not rules to punish companies for changing their labels or prevent them from doing so. This is a free country, after all.

But precisely because this is a free country, consumers are not beholden to the jackboot of the words on product labels. We are free to use any powder to produce whatever quantity of drink we want – and companies need to make that clear.

Product labels need to state unambiguously that any usage instructions are simply recommendations. Many companies already do some form of this, but all must be mandated to do so.

Perhaps we can go even further and have a standard disclaimer that all companies must print: “Any usage instructions, particularly with respect to any quantities specified on this label, are only recommendations, and users should feel free to adjust them to fit their individual needs.”

“Bah! Why do we need the iron fist of Big Brother to tell us something we already know?” I hear you ask, as you fret over whether Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead is the best book ever written.

Let me answer by talking about the economic idea of a “nudge.” Some public urinals have little flies painted near the centre of their walls. They give men something to aim at when they urinate, and as a result, less of their yellow discharge splashes out. It makes the janitors’ work easier.

Are men capable of aiming at the centre of urinals without prompting? Of course they are. But only the greatest saints among us consciously think about our time in tinkletown. It’s not usually a monumental event. So we simply proceed instinctually.

Are people capable of using products in whatever way they choose? Of course they are. But so much of our daily lives is essentially spent on autopilot. And when we read the text on product labels, we tend to just follow them. Research shows, for example, that almost 90 per cent of people throw away food by the often-arbitrary expiry date on the label, even if the food is perfectly safe to consume.

Mandated disclaimers on usage instructions won’t stop all people from following them, just as the little painted flies don’t stop all men from leaking all over the latrine. But it stops some – enough that the difference is visible.

This will hopefully give companies less incentive to change their usage instructions to make people use up their products quicker – a nudge, if you will.

Consider another liquid. In Montana, the expiry date on milk is just 12 days after pasteurization, compared with the industry standard of up to double that.

Montana milk is not some special elixir. It’s the same as milk from anywhere else. But the state government has mandated a much shorter sell-by window. The purpose of that, critics say, is to protect the local dairy industry, making it harder for out-of-state dairy farmers to compete because they have to ship their product from farther away, which eats into that 12-day window.

Customers also presumably use up the milk much quicker, either by actually drinking it or throwing away perfectly fine dairy.

Moral of the story: Whatever companies print on their product labels, whether it’s expiry dates or usage instructions, is often not done with the customer in mind. It is done primarily to advance the company’s interests.

It’s only right that it be balanced by a mandated disclaimer.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe