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Why It's So Easy to Binge on Unhealthy Snacks

Andrea Heintz Tangari, My (Myla) Bui, Kelly L. Haws and Peggy J. Liu

Snack food packaging provides ample information for savvy consumers. Before they eat, consumers can review a snack food’s ingredients, nutritional information, and most of all—calories per serving. Consumers often play a game of “this, not that” to regulate calories, selecting items they view as lower calorie based on per-serving recommendations. But food manufacturers play along by posting the lowest serving size that they are allowed to.  Often, these posted serving sizes don’t map to what consumers actually eat in a single sitting. Think of an individual eating tortilla chips during a TV sports event. Before he or she knows it, the whole bag is gone.

This issue is especially important given the trend toward single-serve packaging, the role snack consumption plays in weight management given that snacks often represent a full fourth meal in regards to calorie intake. In a new Journal of Marketing study, our research team demonstrates how consumers respond when presented with calorie information on snack foods. This study is especially prescient because food manufacturers are prominently displaying nutrition information, even providing this information on the front of packages. In addition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is mandating increases in the stated serving sizes for many consumer-packaged foods, as they are less than what individuals typically consume. For example, individuals typically consume a 16-ounce soda in one sitting, although it is supposed to provide two servings.

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Our research team proposed that providing calories-per-serving information can backfire, as consumers eat more perceptually unhealthy snacks when presented with that information. Interestingly, the same does not hold true for perceptually healthy snacks, as they are not a guilty pleasure. We further proposed that increasing stated serving sizes (and thus calories per serving) could eliminate that consumption backfire effect by altering perceived consumption risk. For example, chocolate cookies at 1,000 calories per serving size no longer look as desirable as when they had a smaller serving and displayed a much lower calorie level.

Our team conducted a series of experiments to test intended versus actual consumption of snack food products, presenting participants with snack foods that had a variety of labels. Specifically, we tested control conditions with no calorie or serving size information, labels with standard serving size and calorie information, labels with serving size and calorie information that was double the standard level, and conditions that manipulated calorie expectations to be higher or lower than expectations. In addition, we tested these conditions across snack foods that consumers perceive as healthy and unhealthy.

As expected, consumers did eat more when presented with calorie information for unhealthy snacks. This effect increases when consumers’ calorie expectations are higher than the calories per serving, which occurs with small serving sizes. Furthermore, the effect occurs even among consumers who are monitoring calories to maintain or reduce weight.

So why does this matter? Food manufacturers may not care if consumers snack excessively. In fact, it’s good for business. However, policy makers, regulators, and consumer welfare advocates do care. These groups are concerned about consumer nutrition and the growing obesity epidemic. As such, the FDA is updating serving size standards for some products to more accurately represent what consumers would eat in a single sitting to help them make more informed decisions. For example, the FDA will be increasing the serving size of ice cream, chips, and soda drinks. It will also require that calorie information be the most prominent piece of information presented on the Nutrition Facts Panel labels, followed by serving size.  Thus, food manufacturers can work with regulators and consumer welfare advocates to post more accurate serving size and calories per serving information.

Providing realistic and prominently displayed calorie information and serving sizes can be used as a competitive advantage by aligning food manufacturers and purchasers around the shared goal of pursuing good nutrition and healthy weight management. Our research found that consumers who actively pursued weight management goals were the most susceptible to calorie information. Thus, increasing serving sizes and calories may help consumers make better choices, such as measuring snacks, sharing them, or eating them across multiple days.  

Snack manufacturers can choose to lead consumers to become healthier, becoming partners on that shared journey. By so doing, they can help make their snacks a sustainable, daily part of consumers’ routine, building better predictability into their revenues. As all food manufacturers know, what is accepted by consumers today can become an anathema tomorrow due to changing dietary or social norms. So leading—not lagging—on accurate labels may preserve business for the long-term.

Read the full article.

From: Andrea Tangari, My Bui, Kelly L. Haws, and Peggy J. Liu, “That’s Not So Bad, I’ll Eat More! Backfire Effects of Calories-per-Serving Information on Snack Consumption,” Journal of Marketing, 83 (January).

Go to the Journal of Marketing

Andrea Heintz Tangari is Associate Professor of Marketing, Department of Marketing and Global Supply Chain Management, Mike Ilitch School of Business, Wayne State University.

My (Myla) Bui is Associate Professor of Marketing, Department of Marketing and Business Law, Loyola Marymount University.

Kelly L. Haws is Anne Marie and Thomas B. Walker, Jr. Professor of Marketing, Owen Graduate School of Management, Vanderbilt University.

Peggy J. Liu is Assistant Professor of Business Administration, Marketing and Business Economics Area, Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh.