The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Mini-Portions, Mini-Waistlines?

Mini-Portions, Mini-Waistlines?

Health and Wellness

October 26, 2008

 In 1988, a spaghetti dinner was a 500-calorie meal consisting of one cup of tomato sauce and three small meatballs. Today’s 1,020-calorie spaghetti dinner consists of two cups of sauce and three large meatballs.

Portion sizes have increased dramatically over the last 20 years, and so have the waistlines of consumers across the globe. On the surface, mini-snack packs – the smaller, measured out containers promising satisfaction in 100 or so calories – appear to offer a possible solution to the portion crisis. But a recent study suggests otherwise.

Mini-snack packs may actually cause consumers to eat more, says researchers at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. According to their study, which examined the eating behaviors of undergraduate students, it may be harder to restrict consumption when eating smaller, snack-sized portions.

When tested in an interview setting, the study revealed that consumers tend to choose smaller packages of snacks because of eating control concerns, avoiding large packages for the same reason. Additionally, consumers believe that small packages help regulate the consumption of tempting products, like cookies and chips.

When tested in a TV-watching setting, with chips in different size formats available for consumption during the testing period, the majority of consumers ate fewer chips from large packages. Also, the likelihood of opening up a bag of chips was significantly lower when the bag was large.

Although the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends dividing up the contents of large packages into several smaller containers to help avoid over-consumption, researchers say that this tactic could backfire. Moreover, the large packages that HHS warns against may actually facilitate self-regulation – much more so than small, single-serving packages do.

Dr. Marcel Zeelenberg, one of the study authors, says that self-regulatory behaviors must be engaged to prevent consumers from over-eating. If consumers do not perceive the situation to be one that requires self-control, they may not activate their coping strategies to deal with temptation.

“The presumed tendency of consumers to believe that smaller quantities of tempting products are ‘acceptable’ and to consider single-serving packages even as helpful self-regulatory tools can contribute to increased consumption compared to when products are offered in quantities considered to be ‘unacceptable,’ which could instigate consumption restraint,” says Zeelenberg.

In the same way that low-fat nutrition labels have been shown to lead consumers to underestimate the number of calories per serving and thereby over-consume calories from snacks with low-fat labels, small packages could encourage consumers to let their inner-regulatory guards down, causing them to eat multiple small packs in one sitting.

The study implies that customers must be allowed to monitor their calorie intake on their own and decide when they are full, just as they are taught to do under the USDA Dietary Guidelines. In fact, one component of the MyPyramid program for preschoolers emphasizes the importance of teaching young children to know when they’ve had enough.

Small packages are viewed as portions that can be consumed in full, so self-regulatory behaviors may not be activated when consuming small packages. Large packages, on the other hand, clearly contain more than a single-serving, which in turn requires monitoring.

“The amount consumed may be lowest when self-regulatory concerns are activated and the tempting products are presented in a large package format,” says Zeelenberg.

While the purchasing of one single-serving snack can be an effective way to monitor calorie intake, the purchasing of multipacks of single-serving snacks may tempt consumers to increase their consumption of small packages. Product and packaging literature may contribute to over-consumption as well, because labels that promise external regulation may trigger an urge for the immediate consumption of tempting products.

“The increasing availability of single-serve packages and multipacks may not serve consumers in the long run,” he adds.