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Archive for June, 2013

Why current size labels can be deceptive

Below is my blog post for Huffington Post, “I’ll have a medium soda”–Why current size labels can be deceptive. You can also read it HERE.

As a nutrition researcher tracking portion sizes and labels manufacturers use to describe such sizes, I have seen food portions not only grow larger over the years, but the labels to describe foods and drinks have also changed.

For example, when McDonald’s opened in the 1950s, the company offered one size soda, which was 7 ounces; today’s 12 ounces is labeled a kid’s size and the 16-ounce is labeled small. Similarly, when Burger King opened, the company offered a 12-ounce small and a 16-ounce large soda. The 12-ounce is no longer sold and the 16-ounce comes as part of the value meal. Burger King’s small soda is now 20 ounces, the medium is 30 ounces, and the large is 40 ounces.

Does anyone pay attention to these label descriptors? And do they influence how much we really eat? Apparently yes, according to a new study published in Health Economics by Cornell University researchers David Just and Brian Wansink.

The study found that labeling a food as “regular” or “double size” affects how much consumers will eat, regardless of how big or small the portion size actually is.

The researchers served subjects two different portions of pasta in either a one cup-portion or a two-cup portion. For some of the subjects, the two different size portions were labeled “half-size” and “regular.” For the other subjects, the identically-sized portions were labeled “regular” and “double-size.” The labels for the first group of subjects indicated that the two-cup pasta portion was the regular size, while it was suggested to the second group of subjects that the one-cup pasta portion was the regular size.

The study concluded that varying the “regular” portions affected how much the subjects actually ate. Subjects ate more food when the portion was labeled “regular” than when it was labeled “double-size” despite the fact that the two sizes were actually the same size.

The subjects were also willing to pay more for a larger sounding portion size.

As reported in newsLI.com, “These varying concepts of ‘regular’ portions made all the difference in how much people would spend and subsequently eat,” said Just. “Participants ate much more when their portion was labeled ‘regular’ than when it was labeled ‘double-size.’ In fact, participants who thought their portion was ‘double-size’ left 10 times the food on their plate.”

How does this study affect those of us who typically eat out at eateries that offer foods and drinks in different sizes? The chart below shows the sizes of fast food soda portions at top fast-food chains.

McDonald’s

Kids 12 oz.
Small 16 oz.
Med 21 oz.
Large 32 oz.

Burger King

Value 16 oz.
Small 20 oz.
Medium 30 oz.
Large 40 oz.

KFC

Small 16 oz.
Medium 20 oz.
Large 30 oz.
Mega Jug 64 oz.

As you can see, the benign sounding “medium” soda is actually quite large. McDonald’s medium portion is 21 ounces (a pint and a half) and Burger King’s medium soda is 30 ounces (nearly a quart). But because these items are labeled medium, customers may consider themselves virtuous by not ordering the large, and may in fact order a medium order of fries to go with the soda.

My advice: Next time you visit an eating establishment that sells food in several sizes, I suggest ordering the small. Unless, you are visiting a Starbucks where the small is labeled tall.

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Why A Cap on Sugary Drinks May Work

Below is my latest blog post for Huffington Post “Why A Cap on Sugary Drinks May Work.”

You can also read it HERE.

The New York City portion cap on sugar-sweetened drinks was back in court earlier this week. I attended the appeals hearing held at the state appellate court. The NYC health department argued against the ruling by Judge Milton Tingling that blocked the cap on sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces from being sold in food establishments including fast food establishments, delis, and other locations which get a letter grade. As reported in the New York Times, the lawyer for the city was met with skepticism from the justices of the First Department of the Appellate Division. It is unclear when a ruling will be issued.

As I previously blogged on The Huffington Post and the NY Daily News, I support the portion-size cap on sugary beverages. In a nutshell, portion size matters and can help in the fight against obesity. As I illustrated in my book The Portion Teller Plan, portion sizes of sodas have increased considerably over the years. Large portions may contribute to obesity because they contain more calories than small portions. While a small soda (16 ounces) at KFC contains 180 calories, the Mega Jug (64 ounces) contains nearly 800 calories. Larger portions also encourage us to consume more and to underestimate our intake. Soda, in particular, offers up no positive health benefits and is pure sugar.

Now, a new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that soda size limits may help in the fight against obesity. The study found that limiting the sale of oversized sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages could affect 7.5 percent of Americans daily, have the greatest impact on overweight individuals, and would not discriminate against the poor.

As written in HealthDay:

The study found that about 60 percent of Americans consumed sugary drinks daily, but only 7.5 percent of them purchased “super-size” sugary drinks from an eatery on a given day. The rates, however, were somewhat higher for certain groups: 13.6 percent of overweight teens, 12.6 percent of overweight young adults aged 20 to 44 and 8.6 percent of overweight people in general. The investigators also found that low-income and high-income people were equally likely to buy large sugary drinks from restaurants, which challenges the criticism that a ban on the sale of these drinks at eateries discriminates against the poor.

I certainly do hope that the court considers this study when issuing a ruling. Obesity and diabetes are major public health problems in the city of New York as well as in other parts of the U.S., and limiting the sizes of sugar-sweetened drinks is certainly worth trying.

In the meantime, the NYC department of health launched a new ad campaign urging New Yorkers to pay attention to the high sugar content in energy drinks, sports drinks, sweetened teas, and fruit-flavored drinks. While these drinks sound “healthy,” many have more sugar than soda. A 20-ounce lemonade, for example, contains 260 calories and 67 grams of sugar. Sugar-sweetened drinks have been associated with weight gain and and an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

As the weather gets warmer and while we wait for a ruling from the appellate court, I urge us all to drink more water and pay attention to the sizes of our sugary beverages.

For more by Dr. Lisa Young, click here.

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