Shrinking snacks? How junk food makers play with portions to fool consumers

Last month, the UK Government came up with an ingenious new idea to stem the rising tide of obesity that is already spilling over low-slung jeans everywhere: eat less. Health Minister Alan Johnson met with a coalition of confectionery giants including Mars, Coca-Cola and Nestle, urging them to reduce the sizes of their delicious, calorie-laden snacks.

Shrinking portions is not a new idea. Last year, Food Standards Agency formed a panel to explore the role of food portion in our diets after announcing that reducing portions would be one of four key proposals for encouraging healthier eating in Britain. But someone else got the idea of reducing portions years before the FSA drew up their plan. The BBC News website devoted this discussion to the idea way back in 2004, after confectionery giants announced that they would reduce the sizes of their delicious, calorie-laden snacks!

So if the Food and Drink Federation agreed to cut the sizes of their snacks five years ago, how come Alan Johnson still pressing them to do so? The answer is in the alchemy of nutritional labelling and the science of psychology.

Question: how do you half the number of calories in a chocolate bar without taking anything away? Answer: you serve it in two pieces.

i-c99cfeb1ebbf29723949067c0f0973d5-Bounty_chocolate.jpg

Confectionery manufacturers have long known that less is more. Faced with selling something that most people accepted was an unhealthy indulgence, companies such as Nestle and Mars struggled to make it seem less so. And nothing does this quite so well as repackaging a fattening chocolate bar as two not-so-fattening ones. The Bounty bar above is the epitome of this psychology: as a chocolate bar predominantly marketed at women, it's no coincidence that it also comes in two pieces. Kit Kat, another female favourite, has long been the best-selling chocolate bar in the UK, and for good reason - weighing in at 107 calories, it's a chocolate bar that's light on your conscience as well as your hips. With around 284 calories, the Mars Bar looked like the dietary equivalent of child porn by comparison. Mars knew this, and lo, they created the Mars snack size (163 calories), and the fun size (88 calories). This logic eventually landed us with the Bounty-style Mars Duo, and Mars Planets - tiny chocolates so small that each can only contain two of the four essential ingredients of a Mars Bar. The problem with making chocolates this small is that you need to sell them by the bag to shift any, wherein lies the second part of junk-food vendors' sleight-of-hand.

Legally, nutritional content of food must be given according to quantities per 100g of foodstuff. Food manufacturers, may, in addition, give the amounts per serving. It's not hard to see that this caveat exists to allow makers of sharing food - cakes, pies, etc., to give useful information on the likely amount of calories and so forth one person might expect to receive from their portion of the whole. Now, it's doubtful that anyone could argue that a 50g chocolate bar is a sharing item that contains several servings. But cut that bar in two, and suddenly it really does become two portions. If we look at the nutritional content of a 57g Bounty bar, we discover this is the case: cutting the bar in two allows Masterfoods to give nutritional information per 28.5g - that is to say, half the amount in a Bounty bar as it is purchased:

i-14c234adf64f265a9ad3f98229c4df33-DSCF6079.JPG

Let's take Masterfoods' lead here and hold the idea that a 'portion' of chocolate is 28.5g. How does that measure up against other confections? A portion of Mars bar, for example, weighed in at 62.5g (before recently being squeezed down to 58g) - in both circumstances still twice the size of a Bounty portion. And what's more, something strange happens when you start slicing up the Martian snack. When in tiny pieces as a 165g bag of Mars Planets, a "portion" is 25g. But in the Bounty-style Mars Duo, each portion weighs in at 45.5g! In fact, a Mars Duo contains MORE calories than the controversial "King Size" bar it replaced, as the contents have grown from one 62.5g bar to a pair of 45.5g bars - an 8% increase in calories, fat, sugar - well, in everything.

To recap (and remember these are all the same confectionery):
Portion of Mars as Planets: 25g
Portion of Mars as regular bar: 58g
Portion of Mars as Duo: 45.5g

In the face of such shenanigans it's shouldn't surprise us to find some manufacturers giving nutritional information for every bite of their food. And so, I give you Maynards Wine Gums:

i-9a8d6fa7ce0c8ad375546357689eee71-DSCF6086.JPG

Yes, you read right - Maynards give their nutritional content by sweet. And although I don't have a picture of it, cartons of Cadbury's Mini Eggs perform a similar flourish. It's difficult to say whether this is more or less insidious than Mars' mighty morphing portions. On the one hand, it's clearer than a mystery "portion", but on the other, it's an unreasonable way of keeping track of how much sugar I'm consuming.

The crux is this: these packs might say "to share" on the front, but most of us won't. Mars would have us believe that their 165g packet of Planets is enough to feed six and a half people. Really? Here's what a daily portion of Planets looks like:

i-bf9973a3d90642742a0aad4e16a6f8e1-DSCF6077.JPG

I ate them in one mouthful. Delicious, but a poor complement to the Grolsch I'm drinking. To their credit, Mars state the amount of my recommended daily intake of calories that mouthful just notched up - 6% - but it's left to me to work out that eating the whole bag (as I will surely do) will give me 39.6% of my daily calorific intake and 52.8% of my daily allowance of fat. Wow. I should probably put these away. According to Mars' calculations, it should take me a week to finish the bag.

In conclusion: it's a fool's errand to demand food producers to reduce portion size, without defining what a portion is. Whether you cut a cake into four, six, or eight pieces makes no difference if the consumer eats the whole thing. And it's we consumers who are deluding ourselves into thinking that two chocolate bars are better than one. Instead of asking the Food and Drink Federation to do something about how fat we are, the Health Minister should be lecturing us to exercise more and quit stuffing out faces with chocolate - no matter how many pieces it comes in.

More like this

A report from MSNBC identifies seven food items commonly thought to be nutritious (or at least harmless) but actually either filled with nasty ingredients or stripped of healthy ones. If I may be permitted, I'd like to summarize the author's findings. The seven deadly snack foods (and their sins…
Last Sunday was the 30th annual Boilermaker 15k road race in lovely Utica, NY. This is perhaps the biggest event in central NY during the summer. This year, the Boilermaker attracted over 12,000 entrants along with an elite field of national and international talent. In other words, it's not your…
The Washington Post's Jane Black gives us a heads-up about the forthcoming update to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Every five years, USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion issues new dietary guidelines based on analysis by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a group of…
Cognitive Daily would not exist without chocolate. Every week, I buy a bag of chocolate covered raisins, and I portion them out precisely each day so that I've finished them by all by (casual) Friday. I try to time my consumption to coincide with the most difficult part of the job: reporting on…

cracking post - the numerology employed to produce the sleight of hand necessary to keep us chomping is baffling! unless you're a mental arithmetic wizard it's usually very difficult to acutally work out how many calories you've just eaten, despite supposedly informative labels that 'bare all.'

great stuff!

Considering how cereal boxes have been shrinking I expect they'll have to follow this trend next.

Anyone care for a corn flake or a Cheerio for breakfast?

I love Bounty Bars, although they are very hard to find in the U.S. I can only find them at my local hardware store. At this very moment, a half-eaten Bounty is on my desk at home, so maybe two-piece candy bars work. Years ago, I had a craving for those super-sweet after-dinner mints -- the ones that look like little pastel-colored pillows. I noticed that the serving size listed on the box was 38 pieces! Even I wouldn't eat that many at a time.

I hesitate to ask, but what on earth are Maynard's Wine Gums?

By Mrs. Grackle (not verified) on 02 Mar 2009 #permalink

Bounty bars are nice battered with a sweet batter and deep fried. Include a little pinapple juice in the batter for extra indulgence.

By Paul Murray (not verified) on 02 Mar 2009 #permalink

What gets me is those traffic lights style food ratings. The colour is entirely based on unrealistic portion sizes sometimes, which, bear with me, is a stroke of genius. Take a pizza - the portion size is often half a pizza. Who the swear word eats half a frozen pizza?

Now lets say that some of the ratings on the box may be green for salt or yellow for fat... looks okay, but that's only half the pizza. How do you multiply a colour??? Brilliant! Who ever came up with that scam must have got a big fat bonus.

Mrs. Grackle (love the name):

To try to put this into American candy terms, Wine Gums are a sort of super-gelled candy; not as hard as Jolly Ranchers, but not exactly squishy, either. I have known three people in the last decade who lost fillings or crowns trying to chew these things, as they are stickier than salt-water taffy once you get your teeth into one. The descriptions of the flavours on the Wikipedia page is fairly accurate.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 08 Mar 2009 #permalink