It happens all the time: You open a snack bag, cereal box, or pill bottle and find a little bit of product and … lots of air. Consumer Reports dings such products with a Black Hole Award, and loyal readers are quick to send us nominees. We recently rounded up a handful and asked their makers to explain the extra space.
The federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act is supposed to prevent the public from being misled by packages containing excessive "slack fill," nonfunctional or empty space that creates an illusion of more product, often through underfilling, indented bottoms, or extra walls. But slack fill is allowed if it keeps a product from breaking, if the package does double-duty (as a dispenser or tray, for example), to accommodate machinery on the assembly line, or to discourage theft in the store.
About potato chips:
A Frito-Lay customer rep confirmed that chip bags are half-filled. But why? Delicate items pose several challenges. Chips can be broken by rollers on the packing line or pressure from machinery that seals the bags. Extra air limits pressure on chips when bags are stacked. Even altitude matters. If a bag lacks the "headspace" to accommodate pressure changes when a truck passes through high-altitude regions, for example, the seal could break.
Realize that you're not getting shortchanged.
If anything, manufacturers are trying to be more, not less, efficient with their packaging, said Joe Angel, vice president and publisher of Packaging World, a trade publication. Angel said that companies are finding new ways to create boxes, cans, bags, and cartons that keep products safe and fresh while using more renewable materials and leaving less of a carbon footprint. Angel pointed out that one hot-dog maker recently saved millions of dollars by trimming a couple of inches off its packaging. That way, more products fit into shipping containers, and the trucks that move the containers into stores can make fewer trips.