Brent McFerran

Brent McFerran Ph.D.

I'll Have What She's Having

Do Small Packages Make Us Eat More?

When 100 calorie packs make us eat more.

Posted Nov 08, 2011

In 2004, Kraft introduced small package sizes for several of its snack food lines. Aside from there being times when a smaller package might be more convenient, many consumers welcomed packages that were trumpeted as being helpful in moderating their own intake. This now-popular trend of "reduced size" or "100 calorie" packs was of course wildly successful. Not only did consumers want smaller packages, they were willing to pay more (per unit) for a package that was shrunk down in size. This was a win-win situation for both consumers and firms. Many consumers recognize that if left with the large package of chocolate, they continued to eat and eat. The idea was that if the package was smaller and promised to help them regulate their own intake, this had value for them.

But do people actually eat less as a result? New research says its unlikely to be the case. Jennifer Argo and Kate White, two marketing professors, recently conducted a series of studies in which consumers were given the opportunity to eat various unhealthy snacks. Those eating from small packages (versus large packs or no packages) ate significantly more that the other groups. Further, those who were low in appearance self-esteem (individuals particularly concerned with their weight and body image), the effects were even larger. Ironically, those who are presumably most interested in small packages are those who are most likely to overeat from them.

Why does this happen? Argo and White show that small packages are a signal to consumers to relinquish control. Interestingly, control is endowed to the package itself. Consumers believe that the small package is going to help them manage their intake. And because the package is doing all of the work (in their minds), consumers don't have to. Once you've given up control to the first small package, it is hard to regain that control (think how many times you've said "I'll just have one", but didn't). Once this happens, people eat more than they would if the package was larger, where they might be more vigilant.  

Argo and White also show that labeling the package "low calorie" makes the problem even worse, as does prominently displaying caloric information on the front of a package—all cues for us "not to worry," which is precisely when we get into trouble.

So are small packages bad? Not necessarily. Their experiments hinge on the fact that there are many small packages lying around you. If you, say, take one small package with you to work for lunch, the small package might be very beneficial (as compared to packing a larger size). On the other hand, if you are at home surrounded by a box full of small packages (or that bowl full of leftover Halloween candy), that's when you can run into trouble.