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Beware the 100-calorie snack pack, warn NMSU researchers

Tiny packages of food - 99- and 100-calorie packs, for example - might seem innocent enough lining shelves in supermarkets across America. However, a team of researchers at New Mexico State University found people who watch what they eat actually expect to consume more from tinier food packages when the food is relatively healthier and is labeled as having 99 calories versus 100 calories.

Photo of NMSU assistant professor Collin Payne
Collin Payne, an assistant professor in marketing in NMSU's College of Business, has co-authored a study measuring how much consumers expect to consume from tinier packages of food. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

They said no one ever measures how much consumers expect to consume from tinier packages because it's assumed people will consume less as compared to larger packages. The research team showed test subjects pictures of different combinations of smaller snack packaging. These included healthier snacks with 99- or 100-calorie labels or less healthy snacks with 99- or 100-calorie labels. They found several results, including that certain groups of people think healthier food will taste better when it has 99-calorie versus 100-calorie labels. They also found certain groups of people say they will eat more of a product when it is relatively healthier and includes a 99- versus 100-calorie label.

"We find those who are targeted to buy tinier packaging--those who watch what they eat-- actually say they will consume more of healthier snacks when labeled as 99 calories," said Collin Payne, an assistant professor in marketing in NMSU's College of Business, and co-author of the study. "People are willing to pay more for smaller portions of food because they expect to consume less, but when it comes to healthier smaller snack packs labeled as 99 calories, consumers expect to actually consume more."

He, along with co-authors Mihai Niculescu, an NMSU assistant professor in marketing, and Chet Barney, an NMSU Ph.D. student in management, looked specifically at dietary restrained customers, or people who "chronically regulate their food and drink intake."

"A lot of people would assume that you would expect to consume less with smaller snack packaging," Payne said. "But the research suggests healthier 99-calorie snack packs lead some people to actually expect consuming more. This might actually lead to over consumption for people who are dietary restrained."

The attraction for a 99-calorie package, as opposed to a 100-calorie package also stood out to the researchers. The logic, they said, was similar to products at a supermarket being priced at $3.99 as opposed to $4.

"One calorie is only a small decrease," Niculescu said. "We were trying to see how people responded and they perceived that one calorie decrease as substantially attractive."

The study also found that consumers could largely identify healthy and not-as-healthy food, even when they were both placed in 100-calorie packages. Payne said this was important because, as far as your body is concerned, not all calories are equal. Nutritionally, you get a lot more benefit from 100 calories of carrots and not as much from 100 calories of cookies.

The researchers say understanding what consumers expect as a result of the smaller packages can help consumers avoid unintended consequences. They concluded dietary restrained consumers are not likely to view smaller packaged snacks as portion control devices, but rather, as a means to eat more of a healthier food.