100 calorie mini snack-packs: helpful for calorie control or just excess packaging?

I absolutely love it when I wonder about something I encounter in my daily life, and then I find the answer to this quandary provided by peer-reviewed research.

Oh, how I love science.

But, I digress.

For a few years now countless food manufacturers have been “sub-packaging” their foods into smaller portions in an apparent effort to curb folks from overindulging. You can usually find 100 kcal multi-packs of chips, pretzels, chocolates, and all sorts of junk foods. Despite the very obvious negative environmental impact of all this excess packaging, I was always curious what, if any, impact such packaging might have on people’s consumption.

Well, I didn’t have to wonder for too long as Wansink and colleagues recently published a paper in the journal Obesity investigating this very question.

I recently discussed a previous study by Wansink that essentially showed that when snacks are served in bigger bowls, people tend to eat more of their contents.

Thus, it would seem reasonable to think the reverse was also true in terms of small packages for snacks, as in the case with these hyper-packaged 100kcal bags of junk.

So the same authors sought to address this issue, and also to check if the effect on consumption of small packages differed between overweight and normal weight individuals.

A total of 42 undergraduate students participated in the simple study which basically had the participants snack on crackers while watching a sitcom – now THAT is what I call research!

Half of the participants were given one large 400-calorie package of crackers or a similar-sized package that had then been sub-divided into four smaller 100-calorie sub-packaged crackers. They were blinded to the purpose of the study.

After watching the show, the crackers not consumed by the participants were counted to calculate everyone’s caloric intake. Also, each participant was asked how many crackers they think they consumed.

Turns out, overweight participants ate significantly more crackers when eating from one large package than from four small packages. In fact, they consumed more than double the number of calories with the bigger package: 384 calories versus 176 calories.

Surprisingly, there was no difference in consumption between package conditions among the normal-weight participants.

Despite this difference in consumption, what is odd is that all groups (small package and big package, overweight and normal weight) underestimated how many crackers they had eaten by more than 60%!

This suggests that the smaller packaging doesn’t make people more accurate at keeping track of what they ate.

So why the difference between overweight and normal weight participants?

The authors suggest the following:

“Obese people were more likely to rely on external cues to stop eating, [and thus] the perception of package count might play a crucial role for overweight participants in determining their food intake.”

Don’t you just love science?

Have a great weekend,

Peter

Reference:

Wansink, B., Payne, C., & Shimizu, M. (2011). The 100-Calorie Semi-Solution: Sub-Packaging Most Reduces Intake Among The Heaviest Obesity DOI: 10.1038/oby.2010.306

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14 Responses to 100 calorie mini snack-packs: helpful for calorie control or just excess packaging?

  1. I think the benefit of the calorie-pack offerings are going to be realized by those who are actually counting calories.

    I’m currently using a calorie counting app for my iPod, and after being amazed at how many calories I was eating in a day, I immediately locked into shrinking portion sizes. And so far it has worked well for me despite the fact that it can be difficult to stick to smaller portions. Which is why the calorie-pack options are beneficial. You’re not seeing food go to waste.

    With that being said, the environmental impact is something that concerns me. I try to recycle the packaging that I can, but I understand that it’s still problematic.

    My point is that I think companies that offer smaller portion sizes have more than just a customer base looking to buy less food, but also those looking to buy food for easier calorie accounting.

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  2. Steve Silberman says:

    Being fat, I already knew what the results would be once I started reading this post; and I was hoping the researchers were smart enough to figure out the external-cue angle. That’s fascinating, and there’s a lot of ground there for more research.

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  3. Michele says:

    This is a great blog post and what a great study!

    Hopefully things like this can have a real practical impact on people’s lives.

    Thanks for posting this!

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  5. Orchid64 says:

    This is something I’ve been rolling over in my mind for a long time as I live in Japan and the norm here is to deliver snacks in not only small serving individual packages, but often tiny single portions. One small cookie that is 49 calories is wrapped in its own sealed package with about 7 other similarly individually wrapped cookies. This has the effect of making you feel that just eating one cookie is the complete snack. If you eat more, you pile up a little mountain of empty wrappers and have a stronger sense of having really overdone it.

    Many people believe this is “wasteful” and from the use of materials, it is, of course. However, I think that this being the norm has an impact on food perception and keeps portion concepts on the whole in line with health concerns. The 100-calorie packs may seem silly, but based on my experience in Japan, where I have lived for 22 years and have acclimated to the presentation of food here, smaller portions in restaurants and individual packages have a profound effect not only on how much you choose to eat, but on how much everyone feels they should eat.

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  6. Runa says:

    Not new, but useful to repeat.
    For us (the people who have fat genetics/little trust in that “enough” -signal) little packages do help.
    But on the other hand processed foods ruin this signal/children who grow up on junkfood do not learn it, so the food industry leaves us with a daily fight against learned reflexes. (Or better said: the addiction is back with each little lapse, and just as difficult to suppress again as it was first time)
    I am growing tired of it meanwhile, but to have a binge just because that mountain of metal foil is so embarrassing, does not help either.

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  7. I think the external cues thing makes some sense — but I think that being overweight probably means either past or current restricted eating in order to lose weight, so greater susceptibility to hunger and external cues, and maybe even more susceptibility to wanting to be seen as not overeating, so stopping when the package is empty rather than risking being seen as a “pig.”
    Small sample size, and homogeneous population also might make this finding questionable.
    I would ponder the “chicken and egg” here — are obese people inherently more susceptible to external cues, or is being obese and therefore dieting and/or concerned about appearing as eating more than one needs to, what makes a person susceptible.
    My experience? I’m frankly often hungrier than other people I know, and I’m short, and not very, very active but not sedentary, either. I have a narrow calorie range that I can operate within to not gain weight, and it’s a smaller amount of food than I can abide and thrive on to lose (more) weight at this point. If I could re-engineer my life to be getting 2-3 hours of physical activity in a day, that might make a difference, but, I love my full-time job — I’m the income earner in my family, and being a mom and a wife and a friend and a daughter and a volunteer in my community, so I’m not interested in a different set-up than the one I have now. Which means that I have a BMI of around 40, instead of what it used to be (49) or what other people think it could be.

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  8. Tracy Murray says:

    Great post. I am an avid calorie counter and am fascinated by peoples perceptions of how much they are eating vs how much they are actually eating.
    If you’re not going to buy the 100 Calorie packs, invest in a good scale and some snack size plastic bags. It’s worth the effort.

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  9. Jennifer says:

    The obese people will probably just go home and eat a big box of crackers after the movie. At least I would. I find those kinds of food are like appetite accelerants and they make me disproportionately hungry compared to, say a piece of cheese, or some plain yogurt. Those little packages are just a form of torment!

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  10. Katrina says:

    Personally, I like the packs because it makes after-school snacks easier to control with my kids. (Can’t have one getting more than the other, after all!)

    And yes, I’m obese and yes, having an external control on how much I consume helps me, as well.

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  11. It seems that the smaller packs at least bring some level of awareness to the number of calories consumed. No one is stopping you from opening a second or third, but it can cause a momentary pause. The packaging can be termed wasteful if the consumer is not using it as intended – one at a time, conveniently portioned, perhap ready for on-the-go. If you are eating three at a time, at home, then yes, it could be considered wasteful. Thanks for sharing the info!

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  12. Tatianna says:

    the excess packaging kills me…why not portion carefully on your own in small tupperware containers?

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  13. Janis says:

    I can see how the act of opening a package would create a sort of “pause-point” for someone who tends to overeat … but let’s face it, anything that will come in a 100 calorie pack is probably crap you shouldn’t be eating anyway. Cookies, chips, candy, whatever. Garbage. There’s no such thing as a 100 calorie pack of cauliflower.

    So I can see how it would be useful as a sort of transitional tool to step down how much garbage you’re eating, but … you’re still eating garbage. Just less of it. Now that has its benefits sure — that nut who lived on Twinkies and Fritos and lost weight demonstrated that even if you eat garbage at reasonable calorie levels, there are still some benefits … but still, 100 calorie packs of shit are still packs of shit. You can’t get over alcoholism by drinking out of a shot glass. Maybe you’ll drink less, and there are benefits to that, but you’ll still be drinking.

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  14. As a family doctor and mother of three, the quest for a healthy lifestyle is both professional and personal for me. The lesson from this study is that we need to pay attention to inner cues while we enjoy satisfying and nutrient-rich foods both at mealtime and when snacking. This is at the heart of any wellness quest.

    http://www.doctorcarriesbetterliving

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