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Is It a Snack or a Meal?

You might eat more depending on what you call it.

Key points

  • About 90% of us snack daily.
  • The presentation of food as a "snack" is different from a "meal."
  • Labeling food as a "snack" or a "meal" can affect the amount consumed.

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” according to William Shakespeare, but what about a snack? Would a snack by any other name have as many calories? Recent research suggests that the name given to an eating episode can affect the amount consumed.

When you think about a snack, what comes to mind? Maybe a snack is a quick bite, some food that you can eat while you’re standing up or on the go. Now, think about having a meal instead of a snack. When you’re having a meal you’ll probably spend more time eating and, most likely, you’ll be sitting down and using plates, knives, forks, and spoons.

Psychologists at the University of Sussex in England studied the effects of the label “snack” versus “meal” on actual food consumption. Eighty female participants were given pasta that was labeled as either a "snack" or a "meal." Whatever the portions of pasta were called, they could eat as much as they wanted. But if it was a “snack” they ate the pasta from a container while they were standing up. In contrast, if it was called a “meal” they were seated at a table and ate it on a plate using utensils.

After both groups of participants finished their pasta, they took a “taste test.” They were given chocolates and asked to rate the chocolate on a variety of dimensions. The researchers weren’t interested in the ratings; they were just measuring the amount of chocolate consumed after the participants had their pasta “snack” or pasta “meal.” The results showed that participants who had pasta labeled as a “snack” ate more chocolate and consumed more calories compared with participants who had the pasta “meal.”

Since all participants had the same pasta and could eat as much as they wanted, the only differences were how the pasta was labeled and presented. The findings suggest that when you eat something that you consider a “snack” subjectively, it doesn’t register that you’ve had a significant amount of food. Later, when you have the next opportunity to eat, you may not adjust your eating to account for the “snack.”

Edward Abramson, Ph.D.
Source: Edward Abramson, Ph.D.

Over the past 30 years, the average number of snacks per day has doubled and about 90% of us are snacking daily. Instead of grabbing a snack and eating it out of the container, if we took the same food and sat down and ate it as though it was a mini-meal, we might eat less at the next meal. A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but calling it a mini-meal instead of a snack might save some calories.


Ogden, J., Wood, C., Payne, E. et al. (2018). ‘Snack’ versus ‘meal’: The impact of label and place on food intake. Appetite, 120, 666-672.

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