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Does food marketing need to make us fat? A review and solutions

Chandon, Pierre and Brian Wansink (2012). Does food marketing need to make us fat? A review and solutions. Nutrition Reviews, 70(10), 571-593. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.2012.00518.x

This review article focuses on the direct effects of marketing activity under the control of food marketers, often referred to as the 4 Ps of marketing: product, price, promotion, and place. Specific focus is placed on the factors that influence how much consumers eat, and in particular, whether they overeat (which is defined as eating more than one realizes). Specific studies examined to write this review article support our conclusion that current food marketing can cause consumers to overeat.

Price: Econometric studies suggest that lower food prices have led to increased energy intake. People accelerate the consumption of products they believe were purchased at a lower price. Based on these findings, we suggest that food manufacturers and distributors offer quantity discounts or bonus packs for healthier food items, such as fruits and vegetables, thus inducing consumers to purchase more of them.

Promotion: Branding and labeling of food often operates by relying on people’s natural tendency to categorize food as intrinsically good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, regardless of how much is eaten. One study involving Québec’s ban on TV advertising aimed at children showed that the ban reduced the quantity of children’s cereal in the homes for brands influenced by the ban. Another study found lower calorie estimations for granola than for M&Ms, a product with the same calorie density but considered less healthy than granola. Labeling both products as “low fat” reduced calorie estimation and increased the amount that people served themselves or ate, especially for those with a high BMI. Promoting healthy foods to consumers may not be effective because of the stigma that they will taste worse.  However, re-branding healthy foods with non-health related positive benefits may be an effective promotion strategy.

Product: Instead of paying attention to internal signals of satiation, consumers focus on external signals, which are often biased. In one study, unsuspecting diners were served tomato soup in bowls that were refilled from tubing that ran under the table and up into the bottom of the bowls. People with varying BMI levels eating soup from the “bottomless” bowls ate 73% more soup than those eating from normal bowls. Additionally, these diners estimated that they ate only 4.8 calories more. Packaging size and serving size help people gauge how much to eat so we recommend reducing packaging sizes of less healthy foods and offering smaller plates in restaurants.

Place: The sheer availability of a variety of palatable foods can derail the homeostatic system designed to regulate food intake. One study found that overweight men on a 3,000 calorie diet did not stick to their diet and consumed an average of 4,500 calories when given access to two free vending machines. Studies have shown that increased consumption is largely driven by increased consumption frequency rather than by increased consumption quantity per meal. About 70% of a person’s caloric intake is consumed using serving aids such as bowls, plates, glasses, or utensils. Dimmed or soft lighting as well as background music appear to influence consumption by lengthening eating duration and by increasing comfort and disinhibition.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to examine all the policy interventions designed to fight obesity, and we need to be mindful of the many factors that are not under the control of food marketers. By highlighting the effects of unobtrusive environmental factors on energy intake, the findings in this review support the current “small steps” approach to obesity prevention. This is done mostly by altering the eating environment, for example, by substituting calorie-dense drinks with water or diet soft drinks in cafeterias, indirectly promoting smaller packages on menus, storing tempting food out of reach and healthier alternatives within reach, and pre-plating food instead of using family-style service.