Supermarkets give away sugar for free!

My wife pointed this out to me the other day somewhat incredulously: muesli without sugar is more expensive than the same muesli with sugar. So I had a quick look (see my tables below) and lo and behold it seems to be a wide-spread practice: the no sugar version costs at least as much or more than the same product with sugar. Put differently: in many instances sugar – as a component – seems to have a negative (or at best a zero) price.

The seemingly most credible explanation is that richer people tend to care more about their health so they are more likely to pay a premium for ‘eating healthy’ – i.e. this is a simple price discrimination story.  A similar explanation is that the price elasticity of demand for healthy food is lower than for sugary food. Conspiracy theorists would probably say that sugar is addictive so this is a cunning ploy to make people consume more – typically sugary – stuff.

In any case this made me think. I recently read a study about the impact of high sugar prices on poverty in developing countries. A key finding of the study was that the price elasticity of demand for sugar is pretty low (especially among the poorest). This comes in shocking contrast that in the developed world the price elasticity of demand for ‘no-sugar’ seems to be lower than for sugar.

A few caveats:

Of course a food scientist might come to the rescue of supermarkets and explain that extracting sugar from a product is a costly process which explains the price difference.

The sugary version is always the larger packaging therefore there may also be a quantity-based price discrimination – however often the non-sugary version is not only smaller but at the same time more expensive or has a similar price.

It is somewhat alarming that in about ten percent of the cases I found unit-price miscalculations; also, Waitrose doesn’t display nutrition info on their website

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sugar with negative price:

    No added sugar   Added sugar
  Product Weight Price (£) Price/100g or ml Sugar content g/ml per 100g/ml  Product Weight Price (£) Price/100g or ml Sugar content g/ml per 100g/ml
Waitrose Alpen no added sugar muesli 1.1kg 2.79 0.39 Alpen original muesli 1.3kg 2.79 0.33
Waitrose MOMA! Plain porridge – no added sugar 70g 1.29 1.85 MOMA! Golden syrup porridge 75g 1.29 1.72
Tesco Alpen no added sugar muesli 560g 2.79 0.5 7 Alpen original muesli 750g 2.79 0.37 10
Tesco Red Kidney Beans No Added Sugar Or Salt 210 0.5 0.24 3.6 Tesco Red Kidney Beans 400g 0.45 0.11 3.6
Tesco Hartleys No Added Sugar Ready To Eat Jelly Strawberry 115g 0.49 0.43 1.04 Hartleys Ready To Eat Jelly Strawberry 125g 0.49 0.39 18.56

  

Sugar with zero price:

    No added sugar   Added sugar
  Product Weight Price (£) Price/100g or ml Sugar content g/ml per 100g/ml  Product Weight Price (£) Price/100g or ml Sugar content g/ml per 100g/ml
Waitrose Green Giant canned naturally sweet sweetcorn, no added salt & sugar 285g 0.85 0.29 Green Giant canned sweetcorn niblets drained 285g 0.85 0.29
Tesco Vimto No Added Sugar Squash 2l 2.5 0.13 0 Vimto Original Squash 2l 2.5 0.13 4.7
Tesco Coca Cola Coke 1.75l 1.89 0.11 0 Coca Cola Zero 1.75l 1.89 0.11 10.6

 

 

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3 Responses to Supermarkets give away sugar for free!

  1. dwpandme says:

    Very interesting indeed; I’m quite annoyed that I’ve not noticed this myself. I have noticed though that the same is true for calories in general (eg in the case of sandwiches that are described as low calorie being more expensive than regular). Possibly there is a plausible explanation for fat free as you suggest in that the cost of extracting fats may be significant; however this can not be used for a food described as no added sugar as there can’t be a cost in not adding something. I guess if they had to justify it they would point to the costs of developing a good-tasting product without using sugar but I’m not convinced.

    By the way, in the 3rd paragraph, should the second instance of the word developing instead be developed? And in the penultimate paragraph should the second instance of sugary instead be non-sugary or am I misreading those lines entirely?

    • orb75 says:

      yup, thanks, it’s been corrected.

      Good point about developing a good-tasting product – it hasn’t occurred to me as a possible explanation but it certainly could be true for some of the products. Although I still believe it’s mainly driven by demand side characteristics.

  2. dwpandme says:

    Reblogged this on dwpandme.

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