Guiltless gluttony: Mislabeled food items often lead to overeating

Oct 29, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Consumers tend to overeat large sizes of food labeled as small and feel that they have not eaten too much—even if they're aware of the actual portion size and nutrition content, says a University of Michigan researcher.

"Mislabeling larger items as being smaller allows consumers to guiltlessly consume more, what we refer to as 'guiltless gluttony,' and can impact both actual and perceived consumption," said Aradhna Krishna, the Dwight F. Benson Professor of Marketing at U-M's Ross School of Business. "This can result in unintended and uninformed overconsumption, which can clearly have dire consequences for health reasons."

In new research forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Research, Krishna and colleague Nilufer Aydinoglu of Koc University in Istanbul found that size labels (small, medium, large, extra large, etc.) used by food companies can have a major impact on consumers' size judgments and purchase and consumption behaviors.

Prior research has shown that consumers have a difficult time estimating food volume through visual inspection or from a feeling of satiation (feeling full) or when verbally told the actual size of a food item.

"Even if benchmarks are provided within the verbal information, the lack of consistent portion sizes across food providers restricts their use and still makes size estimation difficult," Krishna said. "As such, size labels, such as small and large, may provide consumers with easy-to-interpret crutches for direction on size judgment and also on the appropriate amount to eat and drink."

Krishna and Aydinoglu conducted a series of five studies with more than 600 participants in the United States and Europe. Not only did they find that consumers perceive large sizes of food to be small or medium in size when they're labeled as such—and will, consequently, eat more—their results also show that consumers are less likely to believe that a small-sized item labeled as medium or large, is, in fact, labeled correctly.

In other words, underestimations are more likely and increase in magnitude as the size of the meal increases, the researchers say. Underestimations of large meals, therefore, are bigger than the overestimations of small meals.

They say, however, that there are moderating influences on "guiltless gluttony." For example, those less prone to this effect are highly nutrition-minded consumers, as well as those that have the time and wherewithal to consider all information sources and who have a high regard for accuracy in their daily routines. Unfortunately, this is not often the case.

"It has been shown that consumers are not very motivated to be accurate in many routine behaviors entailing frequently purchased goods," Krishna said. "In the context of purchasing and consuming dozens of products each day, consumers may find it too time-consuming and unnecessary to estimate sizes of individual products accurately."

Instead, they tend to rely on labels.

"Our results show that the use of different size labels for the same product affect the amount people consume," Krishna said. "And consumers may not even be aware of the effect of the size label on their consumption.

"Such behavior is clearly ridden with significant health ramifications, and size labels could be contributing to the rampant obesity problems in the United States. Stricter size labeling laws and more vigilant monitoring of marketers' use of size labels may be needed, especially considering the limited cognitive resources available to for routine choice and consumption behavior during their everyday endeavors."

Explore further: Liberal democracy is possible in Muslim-majority countries

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Study: Portion size is all in your mind

Jun 21, 2006

U.S. researchers say you can ignore the number of portions listed on nutrition labels -- the scientists say portion size is all in your mind.

How big (or small) is large?

Mar 17, 2009

Trousers have to be tried on - the variation between size labeling and actual clothing size is huge. This is shown by the report "Large? Clothing sizes and size labeling", which looks at the relationship between clothing ...

Pay attention! Small packages may lead to overeating

Aug 22, 2008

Tempting treats are being offered in small package sizes these days, presumably to help consumers reduce portion sizes. Yet new research in the Journal of Consumer Research found that people actually consume more high-calorie snacks ...

Could our minds be tricked into satisfying our stomachs?

Jul 13, 2010

Research to be presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior (SSIB), the foremost society for research into all aspects of eating and drinking behavior, suggests that the key to losing ...

The big gulp: consumers avoid extremes in soda sizes

Aug 22, 2008

As portion sizes have increased, Americans' waistlines have expanded. And as a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research demonstrates, consumers are tricked into drinking more soft drinks when retailers eliminate small ...

Recommended for you

Feeling bad at work can be a good thing

Aug 21, 2014

(Phys.org) —Research by the University of Liverpool suggests that, contrary to popular opinion, it can be good to feel bad at work, whilst feeling good in the workplace can also lead to negative outcomes.

User comments : 9

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

sstritt
1.5 / 5 (2) Oct 29, 2010
"Stricter size labeling laws and more vigilant monitoring of marketers' use of size labels may be needed, especially considering the limited cognitive resources available to consumers for routine food choice and consumption behavior during their everyday endeavors."
Limited cognitive resources? They really do think we're too stupid to feed ourselves!
mysticshakra
1 / 5 (1) Oct 29, 2010
No, they are saying people are too stupid to STOP feeding themselves. Obesity is becoming the new norm....or haven't you noticed?
sstritt
1 / 5 (2) Oct 29, 2010
No, they are saying people are too stupid to STOP feeding themselves. Obesity is becoming the new norm....or haven't you noticed?

Yes I have noticed, but why not teach personal responsibility and self control rather than having the progressive nanny state dictate what we can and cannot put in our own bodies? Where does this end?
mysticshakra
3 / 5 (2) Oct 29, 2010
Would be ideal, but the public generally isn't interested in personal responsibility. Gov has no place telling people what they can do once informed, but they should at least be informed.
marjon
1.3 / 5 (3) Oct 29, 2010
Would be ideal, but the public generally isn't interested in personal responsibility.

Then the govt should do nothing to interfere with the consequences of such irresponsibility.
Husky
5 / 5 (1) Oct 30, 2010
i think it is ingrained deeply into the genes to eat to much as in the old days it could ne your last meal for a week! problem is with have this abundance of food but still the old genes
mysticshakra
1 / 5 (2) Oct 30, 2010
Marjon, could not agree more. In fact, one way to help fix the healthcare problem would be to refuse coverage (or even service) for conditions that are the result of neglect or abuse. Obesity related problems would be a good example. You refuse to exercise and control your eating, you are on your own.
marjon
1 / 5 (2) Oct 31, 2010
Marjon, could not agree more. In fact, one way to help fix the healthcare problem would be to refuse coverage (or even service) for conditions that are the result of neglect or abuse. Obesity related problems would be a good example. You refuse to exercise and control your eating, you are on your own.

I don't agree with that as I don't support socialized health care. Insurance rates should reflect lifestyle and people willing to pay for care should not be refused regardless of behavior.
mysticshakra
1 / 5 (2) Nov 01, 2010
Willing to pay 100% of the costs maybe, but insurance shouldn't cover it just as it does not cover breast implants.