A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jul 5, 2014

The Problem With Portion Control

This measurement thing is getting trickier. Maybe we've gotten too smart for our own good; too well-informed, too conversant with the big and little data in which we are enveloped.

The 'Supersize Me' era has given way to less fulsome options. People want a choice, even if it proves to be self-delusional. Because who are we kidding? We love self delusion.

We started by shopping at Tiffany's and Target, suggesting we we had standards and goals. But as time passes whatever lessons we thought we were learning appear more transitory than structural. As for control - of anything - who's got that anymore?

We embrace euphemisms like 'full-figured' or 'robust' that mask our indulgences. We play with transparency, thinking we will shame ourselves into disciplined behavior, forgetting that in virtually every other field of human endeavor we have gamed metrics as a way of getting around restriction rather than employing them as a desired end-state.

Food companies thought that they could profit from supporting our new-found concern, only to realize that we were gaming them, too. Sure, we'll buy those 100 calorie packages - and then eat three of them at once. Eventually going back to the original size, because, what the hell.

So the companies arent sure which way to go and frankly, neither are we. We are getting older, as a society, but not necessarily better. Nor worse, for that matter, but we've repeatedly moved the goal posts and appear to have no intention of anchoring them in concrete. JL

Annie Gasparo reports in the Wall Street Journal:

The current view of what constitutes "small" is skewed by the fact that what preceded the new portions were gigantic.
Question: Which is healthier: the 100-calorie pack of Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies or the regular-size bag?
Answer: It depends on how many bags you eat.
After years of ever-swelling portions, food-and-restaurant companies in the past decade have increasingly experimented with smaller plates and packages, targeting those consumers who now crave portion control in a nation long obsessed with getting more.
Food from Pringles potato crisps to Chobani Inc. Greek yogurt now comes in 100-calorie packs. PepsiCo Inctouted its 7.5-ounce "mini" cans of soda in a 60-second commercial during this year's Oscars. Starbucks Corp. sells mini cakes on a stick. McDonald's Corp. , long an icon of our supersize dietary dysfunction, serves smaller servings of desserts and french fries than it used to, and even the Cheesecake Factory Inc., a restaurant chain famous for its huge platters, offers small plates and a SkinnyLicious menu. (See how you score on a quiz to select the smarter choices among these packaged-food match-ups.)
But finding the right size for success has vexed companies and consumers. Sales of 100-calorie packs have actually fallen in the past two years, prompting companies to try other versions of portion control. For individual eaters, smaller portions can limit consumption, but some find that the benefits of right-sized packages are undone by outsize appetites.
Becky Shaver, 27 years old, said she often buys boxes of 100-calorie packs of snacks like popcorn. "The individual packaging makes it easier for me to stop eating," she said. "But sometimes I come home and find my husband got halfway through the box in a day."
Convenience-store chain 7-Eleven started in 1980 selling Big Gulp cups of soda, in sizes up to a half gallon. Richard Drew/Associated Press
For a long time, portions in the U.S. seemed to change in only one direction. The business logic was simple: the cost of adding more food or drink to a serving was less than gains from increased prices and marketing power. Convenience-store chain 7-Eleven started in 1980 selling Big Gulp cups of soda, in sizes up to a half gallon. McDonald's launched its supersize drinks and fries in 1993. Casual restaurant chains like DineEquity Inc. 's Applebee's and Darden Restaurants Inc.  's Olive Garden grew by peddling plates of food sized like heaping hub caps.

The Numbers

Consumers are increasingly demanding more options of portions from snack size to super size. See how burger chains' offerings compare.
That urge to go large continues. McDonald's 550-calorie Big Mac, once the benchmark for fast-food excess, is dwarfed by rivals with nearly twice the calories, like Burger King's Triple Whopper and Carl's Jr.'s Western X-tra Bacon Thickburger. Starbucks Corp., home of the 20-ounce venti-size Frappuccino, in 2011 started selling 31-ounce trenta cups of its cold beverages.
But a decade ago, some food companies also began shrinking their offerings amid criticism from consumers and health advocates. The 2004 documentary "Super Size Me," in which filmmaker Morgan Spurlock got ill subsisting on McDonald's fare for a month, drew widespread attention and critical praise. McDonald's dropped its supersize portions weeks after the film's premiere, though it said the move was unrelated to the movie, which it criticized.
That year, Applebee's introduced its reduced-calorie Weight Watchers menu items, and Nabisco started selling 100 Calorie Packs for products like Ritz snack mix and Oreo cookies. "We were watching consumers buy sandwich bags, and put their cereal or chips or cookies in them, so, we figured, we could do that for them," said Todd Abraham, senior vice president for research, development and quality at Mondelez International Inc., which owns Nabisco.
Nabisco's move sparked many imitators, including Kellogg Co. 's Keebler cookies, Hostess Twinkies, Pop Secret popcorn, and the Milanos from Campbell Soup Co.  's Pepperidge Farm.
Food companies can charge relatively more for portion-controlled products than for family-size ones. A 16-ounce box of Nabisco's Wheat Thins crackers, for example, sells for $3.50 on Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s website, while a box of 12 1-ounce bags costs $4.68.
QUIZ: It isn't easy to judge food by its packaging. See how you score when it comes to selecting the smarter choices among these packaged-food match-ups.
That often makes smaller portions more profitable, executives and analysts say, though sometimes the higher packaging costs make it a wash.
The Greek yogurt industry, which has taken off in the U.S. since 2007, quickly picked up on the trend. General Mills Inc. 's Yoplait Greek 100-calorie cups, which came out in the summer of 2012, hit about $150 million in sales in the first year, making it the most successful Yoplait product launch in 20 years.
"It takes the guess work out of it for consumers, and it makes it easy for them to control their intake," said Carla Vernon, marketing director for Yoplait Greek.
When Yoplait and Dannon, owned by Danone SA,  came out with their versions of Greek yogurt at 5.3 ounces, Chobani, which was selling 6-ounce cups, shrank the size of its standard portion to 5.3 ounces. Chobani, the top-selling brand of Greek yogurt, said consumers told the company it was confusing to compare nutrition information between different portion sizes. It also started this year selling its own 100-calorie cups. Chobani didn't lower the price of its individually sold yogurt cups to match their smaller sizes.
Companies sometimes have found it tricky to balance the desire for control with the impulse for indulgence. After several years of growth, sales of foods marketed as "100-calorie packs" started to decline significantly in 2012, according to market research firm Nielsen. Sales in the 52 weeks ended Feb. 15 fell 13% to $1.2 billion.

Corporate Intelligence

Executives say consumers seeking healthier snacks are increasingly avoiding altogether carbohydrate-heavy items like cookies and crackers that typically sell in 100-calorie packs. Meanwhile, those seeking a treat don't want to be so limited. So food companies are emphasizing smaller portions that don't overemphasize the calories.
"When people see that 100-calorie label, they think it will be a reformulated, bad-tasting version of what they want to eat," said Kellogg Chief Executive John Bryant. He said portion-control items that aren't marketed as 100-calorie packs are still growing in sales.
Mondelez, too, is emphasizing portions that aren't bound to the 100-calorie mark. The company predicts its individually wrapped snacks of 200 calories or less to account for at least 8% of its revenue by 2020, up from 6.5% of revenue in 2012.
In restaurants, shrinkage continues. The number of small plates and smaller-portion items on restaurant menus increased 32% from 2009 to this year, according to research firm Technomic Inc., although growth has slowed somewhat lately.
Cheesecake Factory introduced its SkinnyLicious menu in 2011, saying it was "redefining low-calorie flavor." The menu's hamburger, with a green salad, has 570 calories, compared with 1,100 for its standard "old fashioned" burger and salad.
TGI Friday's Inc. last year introduced a "taste & share" menu of smaller-size items, such as two Hibachi chicken skewers that contain 470 calories, including sides, and cost $6.49 at a Los Angeles restaurant, compared with the two entrée-size chicken skewers with sides that weigh in at 1,230 calories and cost $11.39.
McDonald's dropped supersize portions after the premiere of the documentary "Super Size Me." Bloomberg News
Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says the current view of what constitutes "small" is skewed by the fact that what preceded the new portions were gigantic.
For instance, the Food and Drug Administration in the 1990s said that 8 ounces was the customary serving for a soft drink—roughly the amount in the 7.5-ounce cans. "We shouldn't be calling them 'mini'; we should call them 'normal' and the other ones should be called 'obesity-promoting,' " Ms. Wootan said.
Still, Kristin Kirkpatrick, manager of wellness nutrition services for Cleveland Clinic's Center for Lifestyle Medicine, said the smaller portions ultimately are beneficial. "Sure, some people may still eat more than one portion," she said. "But you're much less likely to eat three or four portions when they are individually wrapped than if you have the whole bag in front of you."


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