Depictions on Cake Mix Boxes Can Lead Us to Overeat
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When estimating portion size, we may be more influenced by food images on the packaging than by the listed serving size leading us to serve more than is recommended. When additional food items are depicted on packages—such as frosting on cake-mix boxes— we are even more likely to overserve!
Through their new research findings published in Public Health Nutrition, Cornell Food and Brand Lab researchers found that depictions of frosted cake on cake mix boxes can cause consumers to significantly overestimate the appropriate serving size. “If we see a slice of cake smothered in frosting on the cake box, we think that is what is normal to serve and eat, but that’s not what is reflected in the serving size recommendation on the nutrition label,” explains lead author and researcher John Brand, PhD.
In a series of studies, Brand, Brian Wansink, PhD, director of the Food and Brand Lab and author of Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life, and Abby Cohen, a former Food and Brand Lab Intern, found that depictions of frosted cake on cake mix boxes amount to nearly 135% more calories than the recommended serving size. In a survey of 72 undergraduates and 44 females in the food service industry, they found that these overly caloric depictions caused both groups to overestimate serving size. The latter group, overestimated by 122 calories. However, when the phrase “frosting not included on the nutritional labeling,” appeared on the box, estimation of an appropriate serving size was significantly reduced.
“Undoubtedly, companies don’t intend to deceive us when they include frosting in cake box depictions, but these seemingly small elements of packaging can have a huge impact,” says co-author Brian Wansink. In conclusion, the researchers suggest that companies simply include a phrase reminding us that extra items in package labels, like frosting on the cake, are not included in the nutrition label’s recommended serving size.
Consumers are heavily influenced by external cues when deciding how much to eat. Several studies have already demonstrated the legitimacy of the “pack size effect,” or the theory that large packages implicitly suggest that it’s normal to eat more than a standardized serving and, therefore, often coax consumers to unknowingly increase their portion sizes. Images on food packaging also encourage consumers to subconsciously over serve, as they often exaggerate the recommended serving size. The purpose of this study was to investigate if the “extras” depicted on food packaging (frosting on cake, in this instance) exaggerate how many calories are pictured and how they might lead consumers to eat more than a recommended serving.
Four studies were conducted to assess the effects of fifty-one different cake mixes. Study 1 compared the calories stated on the nutrition label with the calories of the cake and frosting pictured on the box. In Studies 2, 3 and 4, Cornell University undergraduates (Studies 2 and 3) or foodservice professionals (Study 4) were given one of the cake mix boxes depicting one slice from a round cake. Some were told that the frosting was not included on the nutritional labeling, while others were not provided with this information. They were all asked to indicate what they believed to be a reasonable serving size of cake.
The results from Study 1 indicate that the average calories of cake and frosting depicted on packages exceed the calories listed on the nutrition label by 134%. Studies 2 and 3 show that informing consumers that frosting is excluded from the package’s nutrition label reduces how much they serve. Study 4 showed that even foodservice professionals over serve themselves if not informed that frosting is not included on the nutrition labeling. These results have important implications for policy officials, as they indicate that combining appropriate serving size depictions with a clear message about what is included on nutritional labeling may be an effective way to convey appropriate serving size information to the public.
• Download paper from the SSRN (the Social Science Research Network)
Brand, John, Brian Wansink and Abby Cohen (2016). Frosting on the Cake: Pictures on Food Packages Bias Serving Size. Public Health Nutrition. doi:10.1017/S1368980016000458
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