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Marketing Low-Calorie Snacks, By the Numbers

Marketing Low-Calorie Snacks, By the Numbers

Julian Zeng

ice cream cone face down on table

How food marketers can design their products differently to cater to the preferences of restrained and unrestrained eaters 

The marketplace is stuffed with high-calorie foods: chips, ice cream, buttered popcorn and more. Yet despite the appeal of these indulgences, many consumers want to or need to manage their weight by cutting calories. Marketers of traditionally indulgent foods face a conundrum: How do they create attractive, lower-calorie product alternatives for the many consumers interested in cutting back? Research conducted by Peggy J. Liu, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Pittsburgh, and Kelly L. Haws, professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University, tackled the question of how differences in consumers’ chronic dieting histories predict preferences between two different kinds of lower-calorie offerings


illustration of pink scale

Understanding consumers’ choices between lighter versions of indulgent foods and smaller packages of the same indulgent foods is important for the food industry. By one estimate, more than two-thirds of American consumers want to lose or manage their weight, so the interest in cutting calories is strong. 

Larger and lighter?

illustration of hot air balloon

The authors examined how individual differences in dietary restraint—a measure of engaging in chronic dieting behaviors—predict preferences between a larger package of a lighter version of a snack, versus a smaller package of a richer version of a snack, controlling for the same number of calories in both packages.

100 calories ≠ 100 calories 

“We find that, consistently, consumers who are higher in dietary restraint prefer the larger package of a lighter, more health-conscious snack over the smaller package of a richer snack,” Liu says. In one experiment, participants made a choice between two 100-calorie snack packages: a medium, 94% fat-free popcorn and a small buttered popcorn. Participants’ dietary restraint was measured on a 1-5 scale, where 1 represents never engaging in diet-related behaviors and 5 represents always engaging in diet-related behaviors. The correlation between dietary restraint and choice of the medium, 94% fat-free popcorn demonstrated a small-to-moderate effect. 


Consumers hold varying beliefs on how 100-calorie packs are created. In a pilot study, 36.4% of consumers thought it was via lower-calorie ingredients, 21.2% thought it was through reduction of quantity and 44.2% thought it was a combination of these two changes. 

r = 0.17 – 0.23

Across the authors’ main studies, the correlation between dietary restraint and choice of larger, lighter (versus smaller, denser) options was quite consistent. The correlation coefficient—a measure of how associated two variables are and represented by “r”—ranged from r = 0.17 to r = 0.23, indicating a small-to-moderate effect size. 

illustration of open mouth, flexing bicep and stomach


“We also examined why consumers higher in dietary restraint exhibit these consistent preferences,” Liu says. “We found that these consumers care more than others about eating healthily, but also care more about eating a serving of food that they think will make them feel full.” 

1 unit = 0.8 point increase

Dietary restraint predicts higher emphasis on health and fullness, but not taste enjoyment. This means that for every unit increase in dietary restraint, there was a 0.8 point increase on a 1-7 scale measuring the importance of addressing health, a 0.7 point increase measuring the importance of addressing fullness and no significant increase measuring the importance of addressing taste enjoyment. The heightened emphases placed on addressing both health and fullness help to explain why dietary restraint predicts choosing larger, lighter (versus smaller, denser) options, controlling for total calories. 

“Overall, the findings suggest that food marketers should design their products differently based on whether they are designing food packages for restrained or unrestrained eaters,” Liu says. “If they are marketing products like 100-calorie packs to restrained eaters, they should emphasize not just the healthiness of their foods but also the fullness potential.” 

Julian Zeng is omni-channel content manager at the American Marketing Association. He may be reached at