When Shakespeare said “fat paunches have lean pates”, he was not only structuring his play but penning down the undeniable truth of the modern times. The way ‘consumerism’ has evolved today thrusts an impression that marketers and consumers are at loggerheads, the former working to manipulate the latter. However, what seems to be of a greater truth is that it is the latter who wields the power to turn the tide the way they want.
Making a food choice decision seems as simple as picking the cues from our taste buds and ordering what they demand. But what gets left out in the task is the complexities of the process. A large number of researches have pointed out the role of mediators in any individual’s eating behaviour. One such factor, which seeps in the nutrition process of consumers, is the size of the portions. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, USA, defines portion sizes as “the amount of a single food item served in a single eating occasion, such as a meal or a snack. It is the amount offered to a person in a restaurant, the amount offered in the packaging of prepared foods, or the amount a person chooses to put on his or her plate.”
Brian Wansink, Professor of Applied Economics, of Nutritional Science, and of Marketing at Cornell University, in his research report “Bad popcorn in big buckets: portion size can influence intake as much as taste”, contends that environmental cues such as packaging and container size are so powerful that they can increase our intake of foods not only more palatable but also the less palatable ones. He emphasises on the subtle difference between food choice decisions and food ‘volume’ consumption decisions.
In his research, Wansink conducted an investigation on moviegoers who were given at random a free medium (120 grams) or a large (240 grams) container of popcorn that was either fresh or stale (14 days old). Each bucket of popcorn had been preweighed prior to being handed out, and the weight had been unobtrusively marked on the bottom of the bucket. The generous size of the buckets ensured that the popcorn would not be completely consumed and that there would be no artificial ceiling to how much people could consume. The results indicated that moviegoers ate an average of 45.3 percent more popcorn from a large container than from a medium container when the popcorn was fresh. On the other hand, 73 of 86 moviegoers who were given stale popcorn had described the popcorn with negatively-valenced remarks such as “stale,” “soggy,” or “terrible.” In spite of these negative reactions toward the stale 14-day-old popcorn, moviegoers who had been given large containers ate 33.6 percent more than those given the medium-size containers.
According to Wansink, container size increased consumption for both the fresh and stale popcorn (45.3 percent and 33.6 percent respectively). However, the relative increase in consumption was greater for the fresh popcorn than for the stale popcorn. Thus contending whether we over-eat the foods we like, or the foods we have, Wansink concluded: “In this distracting theatre environment, 41.6 percent of amount of popcorn each person ate could be simply attributed to the size of the container and the popcorn’s freshness – not to the actual perceived taste or quality of the popcorn.”
It is widely accepted that over the years the size of portions have been increasing in an attempt to provide consumers the right service and value for their money. However, a spillover effect of this trend has been a possible rise of health concerns. Although food palatability has been unanimously attributed for greater consumption volumes, it is observed also, that during an eating session, consumers act passively and are more suggestible to the environmental cues such as lighting, plate shape, socializing and package size. Such cues tend to take control over the volume of food we consume and thus, can lead to a gradual gain in weight.
While dim lighting at restaurants influence consumption by increasing eating duration and comfort and by decreasing inhibitions, socializing influences consumption in two ways. One, by leading to extended meals while eating with familiar people, and two, by observing others’ eating behaviour, which also tends to suggest consumption norms. One consumption norm we are much accustomed to is the “Clean your plate phenomenon”, which pertains to the habit of eating all we are served and not ‘wasting’ food. It is this norm that largely contributes to eating more when we are served more.
Aside the psychological influence of package sizes, Hemant Malik, Head Marketing of ITC Foods informs the economic role of packages when he says, “Usually larger packs are more cost effective to consumers because of savings on production costs; distribution costs; packaging costs etc. The consumers are generally aware of the cost savings accrued due to larger/family packs and many people prefer the same. This does increase consumption of certain food products, but at an overall level, consumers are aware of the value equation.”
The portion-size menace, which is more prominent in the more developed countries like USA, indeed made McDonalds withdraw their 42-ounce super-size soda and 7-ounce super-size order of fries at their 13,000 U.S. stores as a part of the “healthy lifestyle initiative” back in the year 2004.
The reason why we tend to consume more when served more is because for many individuals, determining how much to eat or drink is a relatively low-involvement behaviour and a nuisance to monitor continually and accurately, so they instead rely on consumption norms to help them determine how much they should consume.
This is a more convincing explanation when we take the French portions into account. The impressively rich French cuisines, and paradoxically slender population points towards the contributing role of their relatively smaller portions. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and CNRS in Paris compared the size of restaurant meals, single-serve foods and cookbook portions of both France and America. They inferred that the smaller food portions may explain the ‘French Paradox’ of rich foods and svelte population.
The understanding of fundamental behaviour has implications for consumer welfare, when consumption is the context. Consumers are often surprised at how much they consume, which indicates that their consumption may be influenced at a basic level of which they are not aware or do not monitor.
Small or single portions of late have indeed gained recognition among marketers. This is being considered a sound alternative to cost-effectiveness as well as consumption feasibility.
While container or package size can be used to downwardly adjust portion size and consumption, it can also be used to increase consumption among children and elderly where healthy yet possibly less palatable foods are important for continued health. Package sizes can potentially play a greater role in promoting better health through the appropriate capitalisation on the subtleties of human behaviour.