Smaller Halloween treats lead to larger eats: study

10/31/2011 21:07:08 PM

EDMONTON — Treats packaged in Halloween-sized mini portions trick people into eating far more chocolate and candy than they otherwise would, researchers from the University of Alberta and University of British Columbia have found.

What’s worse is that participants in Jennifer Argo and Katherine White's study who were worried about their weight or appearance consumed even more of the sugary snacks, Argo, a U of A marketing professor said on Sunday.

“Often they’re dieters or restrained eaters, and they ate the most,” Argo said. “So the people for whom these packages are often targeted — like the 100-calorie packs — are actually eating the most.”

Argo and her study co-author, White from UBC, spent about three years and lots of money on candy looking at hundreds of participants for the research to be published next year in The Journal of Marketing. Argo and White wanted to see how much chocolate and candy people consumed when it was in small packages versus regular-sized or when unpackaged treats sat loose in a bowl.

“What we find, in a nutshell, is that when products are put in small packages and you have lots of small packages available, people eat significantly more than if the packages are regular-sized and you had multiples,” she said.

“It depended on what sort of combination we had, but it would be almost about a 50 per cent increase. It’s huge actually.”

Test subjects seemed to surrender their efforts at portion control to the little packets, relying on the wrapper to limit their junk-food intake, Argo said. Low-calorie labels boosted consumption even more, she said.

“If you have a small package and the caloric information is on the front, the effects get worse as compared to if the caloric information is on the back or not presented. If the caloric information says it’s low-calorie — so it does emphasize it’s only 50 calories or 100 calories — the effects are also even worse. So those 100-calorie packs are really, really harmful to the consumers they’re supposed to be helping,” Argo said.

“Consumer are consciously, actually saying to themselves, ‘These small packages are going to help me, and because they’re going to help me, I don’t have to worry.’ So they give up control for regulating their portions to the packages, and that’s where the problems arise.”

It’s timely research as Halloween trick-or-treaters take to the streets Monday and parents sample the leftovers.

“Once you relinquish control . . . it’s very, very, very hard to regain it again,” Argo warned. “As soon as you give it up to one, you’re done.”

A small packaged treat by itself is fine. It was when study participants had many small packs to pick from that their appetite spiked.

“So put one out and put the rest away, so they’re not easily accessible,” said Argo, who has refrained from opening her own stash of Halloween candy.

“If you have a bowl and they’re sitting in front of you and you say, ‘Oh, I’ll just have one,’ you probably won’t.”

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