What's Eating You? 100-calorie Mini-pack Snacks Might be Diet Disrupters

April 09, 2008

For those of us who diet -- counting our cookies, watching our calories and paying more per mouthful for chow that we perceive as "diet food" -- researchers from the W. P. Carey School of Business offer a bitter insight to swallow. Rather than serving up pre-packaged willpower, those 100-calorie snack packs often boost consumption. Or, at least, small morsels of food -- in smaller-than-normal packages -- increased the calories consumed by just the type of people likely to buy such treats as weight-loss aids.

Wiley willpower

Specifically, the researchers measure the response to mini-packs among people considered to be "restrained eaters," or chronic dieters, versus those who are not restrained eaters. Their results will be published in a fothcoming issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

Maura Scott, primary investigator on the project and a doctoral candidate at the W. P. Carey School of Business, likens restrained eaters to the book and movie character Bridget Jones. "This woman has a diary, and every day she weighs herself, writes down her weight and records things she's eaten. She's constantly thinking about her weight, and her weight affects how she lives," Scott explains.

So it is with restrained eaters. To find them, Scott and three marketing professors from the W. P. Carey School asked study participants to answer questions such as, "Do you eat sensibly in front of others and splurge when alone?" "Would a fluctuation of five pounds affect the way you live your life?" "How often are you dieting?" "Would you have feelings of guilt after over-eating?"

According to the researchers, restrained eaters have an emotional relationship with food. They have biases, too.

For instance, research has uncovered a "unit bias," which makes eaters, restrained or not, feel that whatever the size of the food, that's the appropriate size of a serving. So, bigger portions lead to more consumption. In one study, diners given a double serving of pasta polished off 30 percent more calories than people who were given smaller portions.

There is a "numerosity heuristic" at play, too. If you cut a pie into pieces and separate the pieces, most people view the sum of those pieces as being more than the single pie. Put another way, more pieces translate into more calories in most eaters' eyes.

On the other hand, when people see small pieces of food in small packages, they perceive that edible configuration as "diet food." Here, again, these biases affect both restrained and unrestrained eaters. Taken together, the biases created the conflict that resulted when the researchers pitted 200 calories of regular M&Ms against the same caloric measure of mini M&Ms that were packaged into four baggies to simulate mini-packs.

"People have been trained to know that when something is tinier, and it comes in a smaller package, it's more like diet food, something to help control food intake," Scott says. "But when people see numerous pieces of food in multiple -- but smaller -- packages, they tend to perceive the multiple packages as containing more calories" than regular-sized packages.

"It doesn't add up," she says. "Something that is like 'diet food' can't also have more calories." The conflict, she says, causes stress for restrained eaters.

And what do restrained eaters do in response to stress? Research shows they eat more. That's exactly what they did in the W. P. Carey School study.

Taking back your portion control

In one experiment, for instance, 18 percent of restrained eaters gobbled up every mini-cookie in small food/small package presentations, while only 4 percent did the same when regular sized cookies were offered in larger packages.

The unrestrained eaters -- those who aren't perpetually dieting, thinking about food and emotionally drawn to it -- did the opposite. Some 30 percent of them ate more regular (large) cookies from large-size packages, thereby munching in concert with that "unit bias" that makes people assume the portion served is the portion they should eat.

Making matters worse, studies have shown that once restrained eaters reach a certain consumption threshold that makes them feel they've failed the willpower test, they shrug off willpower altogether. Researchers call the uninhibited eating that follows a "perceived self-control failure" the "what-the-hell effect."

But, restrained eaters needn't reach that point of wolfish resignation.

According to the researchers, a "hot/cool" system -- where hot stimuli are those with great emotional draw or force and cool ones are things inspiring a neutral response -- influences an individual's ability to impose willpower. This understanding comes out of psychological research conducted with children, Scott explains. Researchers tempted youngsters with treats such as marshmallows. A child, left alone in the room with the sweet, was instructed to leave it be for as long as possible.

If the child left the marshmallow untouched until a test administrator returned to the room, the reward was two marshmallows. To help kids hold out for the double-marshmallow reward, researchers prompted them to think of the marshmallows as fluffy clouds. "That hot component, the component that was very tempting for the child, was removed from the stimulus and, as a result, children were able to sustain willpower longer," Scott explains. When the researchers reminded kids of how sweet and chewy the treat would be, the kids gave in more quickly.

"All of us have this hot/cold system operating in us, but we all have different triggers," she continues. "What restrained eaters think about most of the time is food, so this would be a hot trigger for them." Still, she says, restrained eaters could help curb their desire to devour by using some other image to neutralize the hot trigger. "They could think of potato chips as flower petals," she offers as an example. Or, M&M could be seen as shirt buttons. "It doesn't need to be something negative," she adds. "It just needs to help you not focus on the hot elements of the stimuli."

Cashing in on conflict

As Scott points out, it's easy to help restrained eaters combat the allure of treats, provided they understand what's going on. But, how many do?

Given that conflicting product-attribute cues lead to stress among restrained eaters, and that stress leads to increased consumption, can marketers take advantage of the angst? They probably can.

"Advertisements that emphasize the 'diet' aspect of small packages will increase stress and, ultimately, consumption for restrained eaters," notes Andrea Morales, a marketing professor at the W. P. Carey School and one of the three researchers who worked with Scott.

She adds: "I think our results generalize to other product categories or situations. For example, people who really like to shop, but who also are very emotional when it comes to their finances and spending habits, might end up over-spending when given a coupon for a certain percentage off on a purchase of $100 or more."

As Morales explains it, "They know the coupon is a positive when it comes to finances, but they also know that spending $100 is a negative. This causes stress and, in the end, the stress would most likely lead to over-spending for certain consumers."

Other examples of conflict's sales potential include seemingly unhealthy foods that offer health benefits, such as calcium-enriched chocolate chews, or "affordable luxuries" marketed to those on shaky financial footing.

If mini-packs are any indication, marketing products with built-in stress-producers might be lucrative indeed. As Scott observes, the mini-packs often cost as much as two-and-a-half times more than the "standard-pack" products they're related to, but that doesn't stop consumers from tossing tiny treats into their grocery carts.

"I've worked on some large consumer brands," she says, "and I was astonished to see that within one year of introducing this product category, Kraft had revenues of more than $100 million from it. Many well established brands don't see that level of revenue in a given year."

Then, again, it could merely be the consumer demand that Scott thinks prompted development of mini-packs in the first place. After all, she points out, some 25 percent of Americans report being on a "diet" at any given time. Weight-loss products constitute a $40 billion dollar industry.

Still, she points out wryly, obesity continues to rise. And, with some 66 percent of Americans now considered overweight, the only part of the diet-industry market that seems to be shrinking is the dough left over in consumers' wallets.

Bottom Line:

  • Marketers have had huge success with "mini-packs" of snacks, which consumers often view as "diet food."
  • Conversely, consumers also tend to see many small morsels as having lots of calories.
  • The dilemma caused when "diet food" appears to have lots of calories serves up stress for "restrained eaters," or chronic dieters.
  • In response to that stress, chronic dieters eat more, so mini-packs prompt consumption.
  • Marketing products with built-in stress could be a boon for companies willing to cash in on consumers' weaknesses and psychological discomfort.