Natural Snack

Packing Snacks: Serving Size and Variety

If you look online or in stores, it’s hard to miss. Popular culture holds up the 100-calorie snack pack as some kind of panacea. For example, Amazon has shopping lists for 100-calorie snacks. Healthy eating websites offer advice for “super healthy” snacks under 100 calories. Snack food marketers are onboard, too. They brag about  promoting “mindful snacking” through portion-control packaging.

It’s not a terrible idea. But new research in the International Journal of Obesity tells us it’s not a panacea, either.

Variety and Numbers Matter More for Kids

Jessica Kerr and colleagues conducted a randomized trial of pack size, variety, and quantities in children 11 to 12 years old, along with their parents. Among the adults, they saw no effect for any of these variables. But for the children, the number and variety of items did indeed affect how much of the snacks they ate. Offering more options and more packs seemed to coax these kids to eat more. However, pack size didn’t have an effect.

The authors conclude:

In children, reducing the number and variety of snack food items available may be a more fruitful intervention than focusing on container or dishware size. Effects observed among adults were small, although we could not exclude social desirability bias in adults aware of observation.

Wansink’s “100-Calorie Semi-Solution”

More than anything, it was probably Brian Wansink’s research that gave legs to the unstoppable 100-calorie pack idea. With a 2012 paper in Obesity, he labeled it a “semi-solution.” In his book, Slim by Design, he told of persuading Nabisco and Kraft executives that these snack packs could be great for them. And thus, the legend was born.

Of course, retractions later took the shine from some of Wansink’s research. But this particular thread still stands in the literature. And the new study in IJO doesn’t directly contradict his findings. Wansink did his research in a different age group. Plus he noted that the effects he saw came mainly from individuals with excess weight.

Legend More Than Fact

In other words, Wansink never really said that 100-calorie packs were a panacea for the whole population. In a 2014 proceedings article, Barbara Rolls wrote that cutting energy density might be “a more effective strategy” than relying on smaller portion sizes. Likewise, marketing scholars concluded in a review and meta-analysis that pack size effects are inconsistent and limited.

All in all, it’s pretty clear that the 100-calorie snack pack is more of a marketing legend than it is a panacea for healthy snacking.

Click here for the study by Kerr et al. For further insight into consumer snacking behavior, click here.

Natural Snack, photograph © Ben Paulos / flickr

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July 22, 2019