Beware of 100-Calorie Packs

…especially if you diet. That’s the findings of a study published in The Journal of Consumer Research.

You’ve seen 100-calorie packs in the grocery store, convenience markets and vending machines. It seems like all snacks foods are available in them. 100-calorie packs made their way into the marketplace in 2004 and peaked in 2008 when 190 new 100-calorie pack foods entered the marketplace. Their numbers are dwindling a bit now, maybe due to the recession or maybe due to less interest in portion-control products. It could be that consumers heard about this study!

Researchers at Arizona State University wondered if the smaller packs were helping people control their calorie intake, the original marketing strategy behind 100-calorie packs.

How did consumers in the study react to the mini-packs? There was no single answer. It turned out that each person’s response hinged on his or her relationship with body weight and food.  To appreciate the findings, it is helpful to know what is meant by a couple of terms:

A restrained eater is someone who resists physiological urges to eat in order to lose weight or to maintain a reduced weight. Often, restrained eaters group foods into good and bad categories and prefer to know calorie content of a food before eating it.

An unrestrained eater usually goes by internal signals that he or she has eaten enough.

Both groups, restrained and unrestrained eaters, thought of the mini-packs as diet food. All of the study participants predicted they would want to eat less if the food was in the mini-packs as opposed to normal-size packs. But when it came to eating the food, the restrained eaters ate more from the mini-packs than did the unrestrained eaters. More often than not, the restrained eaters ate all of the mini-packs available to them whereas the unrestrained eaters ate some and left some.

So what is the appeal of a little bit of food in overpriced packages? My best guess is that restrained eaters gravitate to this type of packaging for “bad” or “forbidden” foods as part of an ongoing effort to eat less overall or to control their eating of less-than-desirable food. 

This study shows us that food packaged in mini-packs doesn’t really help anyone. It doesn’t fool anyone either. People have a basic need to feel there is enough food. That just can’t happen with food served up in mini-packs.

Food security comes from having a plentiful amount of normal food offered at predictable times throughout the day. Approaching meals and snacks in this way lets you pay attention, eat as much you want, and enjoy it.

References:

Scott ML, Nowlis SM, Mandel N, and Morales A: The effects of reduced food size and package size on the consumption behavior of restrained and unrestrained eaters. Journal of Consumer Research. 2008; 35(3):391-405.

Satter E: Hierarchy of food needs. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. 2007; 39:187-188.

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9 comments so far

  1. Sara Bathgate on

    wonderful article and so important. I’m a recent nutrition grad and am contemplating my next steps (masters in dietetics)- I have been so disheartened with conventional dietetics – I finally found Ellyn Satter’s work and it is wonderful to see dietitians (like you) practicing this style.

    I really enjoy your blog.
    thanks!
    Sara

  2. Peggy Crum on

    It’s great to hear from you, Sara. I returned to grad school recently, this time studying health and risk communication–learning the theory that motivates human behavior. Helpful to know in my line of work. Ellyn Satter’s eating competence model is refreshing–I’m glad to know that you recognize it in my writing.

  3. Kate on

    Good clinical descriptions and distinctions.

    I’ve met so many people who seem to think that Ellyn Satter’s motto – let the kids decide how much to eat – is great to live by, but I have to disagree when children in this generation see adults living in America, the land of Diabesity. Maybe I must read the entire book before additional comment. So often kids find a way to eat exactly what they want from school food service, at snack time, and with their friends – from caffeine to blue raspberry foods to candy and sweets. I’d be interested to hear about the communcation learning theory.

    • Peggy Crum on

      Children are more influenced by their family than anyone else when it comes to eating. That is one of the many reasons why family meals are so important. Children may experiment with foods that their peers (or adults) are eating but they are grounded and supported by what is served at home. It is so important not to overreact or forbid foods–that only serves to make the food more enticing. In keeping with the study I referenced in this blog posting, labeling foods as good or bad is not conducive to normal eating. Keep reading (are you reading Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family?)–Ellyn is great about bringing what seem to be divergent eating behaviors back to the model. The division of responsibility in feeding is infinitely helpful in providing direction.

  4. Katja Rowell on

    Love this, thanks! I’m going to repost with a link!

    • Peggy Crum on

      Thanks for getting the word out!

  5. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Katja Rowell, Joy Project. Joy Project said: 100-Calorie packs make people eat more? http://bit.ly/gxNibQ More reasons to eat mindfully and ignore calorie counts! http://fb.me/KdTOpjLf […]

  6. outrageandsprinkles on

    This is a great post. I love what Ellyn Satter has to say about food, I’m thrilled to see her referenced here. I have been trying to practice intuitive eating and I really do find that it’s better for my mental health as well as physical. I don’t know how many calories I am putting into my body, I just try to listen to what my body needs, get whole grains and nutrients, and stop eating when I am full. I feel that seeing the exact calorie count of my food emblazoned across the packaging would achieve the opposite of what I am going for.

    • Peggy Crum on

      Thanks for your comment. It dismayed me to learn that nutrition information will soon be available on the front of food packages. I currently turn the “nutrition facts” part of the package away from my line of vision even when the item is stored on the pantry shelf. Before long, Ill run out of sides! It is possible to avoid the information. I have food allergies so I look at the ingredients list on most food items–my gaze never even ventures up to the calorie or serving size info.


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