July 15, 2008 -- Snackers beware: Nutritionists say smaller snack packs, often touted as low-calorie, heart-healthy treats, may not be your ticket to a smaller waistline -- or a smaller environmental footprint, for that matter.
"One hundred calorie packs are, in my view, a clever marketing ploy that's bad for consumers and bad for the environment," Dr. David Ludwig, director of the Optimal Weight for Life Clinic at the Children's Hospital Boston, told ABCNews.com. "Consumers pay more money for junk food wrapped in smaller packages, but of the same outrageously poor quality as any other junk food."
After decades of supersize portions, fast-food companies and mega food producers are trying to fight obesity and make a profit by shrinking their prepackaged portion sizes into smaller, bite-size packs. According to some statistics, that effort is working.
Smaller containers save big-name food companies a penny or two in production, and sales of 100-calorie packs have passed the $200-million-a-year mark in the last three years, according to Information Resources, a Chicago-based firm that tracks product sales. The firm also reports that Chips Ahoy snack packs saw $29 million in sales last year; Oreo snack packs, $27 million; while Ritz snack mix raked in $16 million.
But given health and environmental concerns, what's good for their profits may not be ideal for your health or your wallet.
The production costs of food are up significantly from a year ago, but the downsizing of item size is disproportionate. In other words, food producers are putting less product into every item but charging the same amount in an effort to pass some of the costs along to the consumers.
Take Edy's ice cream. The company has shrunk its containers by 14 percent but hasn't shrunk its cost. So the smaller container will cost a family the same as the original price of the larger container. (Although with an obesity rate of about 34 percent among adults, Americans could stand to eat less ice cream). And buying an extra container means additional cardboard and plastic that needs to be disposed of, not to mention the added hit to the family's wallet. Landfills could become fuller, production eco costs could increase, and eventually, even transportation costs for the added volume could increase.
Food giant General Mills now produces Haagan Dazs' Little Pleasures, which are minicups of ice cream sold in a four pack. If one doesn't satisfy, at least there are three more, and it sure feels better than digging into a whole pint on your own.
"Because of the seemingly innocuous name, many people feel they have license to eat several of these 100-calorie packs, thus defeating the tenuous, original concept," Ludwig said.
A study released last month by the University of Chicago's Journal of Consumer Research supports Ludwig's assertion that people are now gobbling multiple bite-size packs in one sitting.
The study cites a psychological effect suggesting that the smaller "sins," i.e. smaller portions, can "fly under the radar" while chowing down on bigger bags seems to make a larger dent in a day's perceived food intake.
The study concludes that smaller packages may psychologically help exert a feeling of self-control, but the simple decision to buy a pack of smaller packaged items is sometimes the extent of the control. After that, consumers "let their guard down," having already exerted some amount of self regulation, according to the study.
Still, this spring, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned consumers against larger packages: "Be aware," says the CDC Web site, "for some reason, the larger the package, the more people consume from it without realizing it."
The CDC suggests portioning out your food into a separate container before munching in front of the TV.
Dr. Ludwig, however, would rather focus on healthier options and sees no advantage to the smaller packaging.
"There is not a shred of evidence that they are helping people moderate their food intake," he said.
"I would much rather have a patient eat one scoop of real ice cream three times a week, recognize it as a splurge, than eat a 100-calorie scoop every day," Ludwig said.
In 2007, a market study by the Hartman Group found that 78 percent of 659 surveyed Americans attempted to control their food intake, but 44 percent had difficulty finding single-serving portions that were not expensive.
A year later, those single serving portions are abundant and getting cheaper. These new, sleeker low-fat packages seek to measure for you, but Americans don't seem to be changing their portion perceptions.