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Small Gets Bigger: Portion Control Gets Done in By Food Marketers

By L.K. Regan

Oh, those devious marketers are at it again! At the grocery store or when you go out to eat, most health-conscious men tune out the siren call of the jumbo sizes. But as three studies published this month in the Journal of Consumer Research demonstrate, people judge portions in complex ways that allow food and beverage marketers to reach out and grab them in a variety of ways. Want to really control your calorie intake? Read below to avoid the tricks of the marketing trade.

One way to control portion size is just to buy small packages of food. Hence the rise of the mini-pack. These small packets of snacks—advertised at a limited calorie count, such as 100 calories per package—have become a mainstay of contemporary dieting. After all, the portion in each package is so little, how can it hurt? It turns out, though, that it can hurt a lot—especially for people who consider themselves to be on a diet. According to the authors of a study out of Arizona State University, who looked at consumers' habits with mini-packs, "Interestingly, one group that over-consumes the mini-packs is chronic dieters—individuals constantly trying to manage their weight and food intake."

The researchers for this study tested subjects' perceptions of M&M mini-packs compared to full-sized packages of the candy. They sorted their subjects into two groups, restrained and unrestrained eaters. Restrained eaters were trying to control their caloric intake, and monitor what they ate. In general, subjects thought of the mini-packs as diet food, but also tended to over-estimate the number of calories in the packages. Despite this, restrained eaters ate more mini-packs than did the unrestrained eaters. Why this effect? The study's authors explain that, "On the one hand, consumers perceive the mini-packs to be a generous portion of food (numerous small food morsels in each pack and multiple mini-packs in each box); on the other hand, consumers perceive the mini-packs to be diet food. For chronic dieters, this perceptual dilemma causes a tendency to overeat, due to their emotion-laden relationship with food."

In the end, people on diets are attracted to food—and so are drawn in by the appeal of the small package. But because they are attracted to food, they are also lulled into a false sense of security by the apparent portion control offered by the mini-packs. "While restrained eaters may be attracted to smaller foods in smaller packages initially," the study's authors write, "presumably because these products are thought to help consumers with their diets, our research shows that restrained eaters actually tend to consume more of these foods than they would of regular foods."

To test this theory in the wild, so to speak, a second study, conducted by researchers from the Technical University of Lisbon and Tilburg University in the Netherlands, gave participants a dummy task to perform while offering them either large or small packages of chips. Subjects were initially put through steps to activate their "dietary concern"—including completing surveys to place them on Body Satisfaction, Drive for Thinness, and Concern for Dieting Scales. They were also weighed and measured in front of a mirror—enough to get anyone thinking hard about dieting. These self-conscious subjects then joined a control group who had had no dietary evaluation, and all were put to work on the ostensible task of the study—watching and evaluating advertisements—even as chips were offered to them in either small or large packages. The subjects chose whether or not to snack while watching, never realizing that that decision was actually the point of the study.

The results were fascinating. If the subjects had had their sensitivity to diet issues raised, and were presented with large packages of chips, their consumption was at its lowest. They did not want to open the large packages, and spent more time deliberating beforehand if they did open them. This implies, however, that small packages get under the radar. If you wouldn't open a big package you shouldn't open a small one either—and yet even diet-nervous subjects would open a small package where they would not attack a large one. As the researchers pointed out in the study, "The increasing availability of single-serve and multi-packs may not serve consumers in the long-run, but—because they are considered to be innocent pleasures—may turn out to be sneaky small sins."

Finally, portion size is largely a matter of comparison. What determines whether a package is large or small package, anyway? Apparently, only context. A third study in the Journal of Consumer Research, authored by researchers at Duke University, indicates that, when purchasing soft drinks, consumers will choose to avoid the largest and smallest portion sizes, choosing instead the middle option. They do this, however, regardless of the size of the portions. As portion sizes have increased, so have the sizes people purchase—not because they buy jumbo, but because they buy the middle size; and a small is no longer very small. As the researchers explain, "Consumers who purchased a 16-ounce drink when a 12-ounce drink was available later chose a 21-ounce drink when the 12-ounce drink option was removed, since now the 16-ounce soda is the smallest option. This effect also occurred at the large end of the spectrum; people who purchased a 21-ounce drink when the 32-ounce drink was the largest size available moved up to the 32-ounce drink when a 44-ounce drink was added to the range of drink sizes available." Most of us take the "medium" option—even if it's obscenely large.

By simply shifting drink sizes back downward, fast food restaurants could go some way to reducing obesity in their clientele. Since they are more likely to do just the opposite in order to increase their perception as cheap, more-for-your-dollar foods, consumers can try to become wise to some of the portion tricks that can undermine even the best-planned nutrition plans.