Is single-serve packaging also a health-halo?

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Serving sizes of packaged food can affect a consumer’s health perception and intended consumption, according to a new study in the Journal of Business Research.

It found that consumers tend to eat more of a food item perceived as healthy when serving sizes aren’t partitioned (which is when a single pack is filled with multiple, individually packaged smaller portions).

The word perceived here is key. “Granola snacks are generally perceived as being healthier snack alternatives (despite typically being relatively high in calories and fat content),” the researchers wrote in their study. “And thus consumers may feel that they are making a good choice when eating them and may not be too worried about how much they eat.”

Their assumption was correct—for the first portion of their research, the researchers surveyed 77 US undergraduate and graduate business students, where they showed pictures of a mock cookie product and mock bite-sized granola product, packaged in various sizes. They found that participants perceived the bite-sized granola to be significantly healthier than the cookie product.

Perception and marketing language stronger ‘health halo’ than serving size

The researchers then explored multiple serving sizes of the two products, both partitioned and not partitioned, to a group of 171 students. They were told to imagine that they were having the product as an afternoon snack, and were asked how many pieces of the snack they would eat.

In this study, granola bites were still seen as the healthier option of the two, and there was “a significant interaction between the partitioning and product healthfulness perceptions conditions,” they wrote.

The respondents said they would eat more of the non-partitioned granola bite product compared to the non-partitioned cookie product. But the amount they would eat of a partitioned granola bite product was about the same of a partitioned cookie product. 

In other words, when a product is deemed healthy and not served in single-serve packs, consumers will eat more of it, whereas no significant effect on intended consumption of partitioning was observed for the product already deemed as less healthy.

Implications for food manufacturers and anti-obesity policymakers

Individually-packed, small-serving sized products—known as ‘portion control’ in industry jargon—are filtering the market, especially in the confectionery category.

This current study, conducted by marketing and business researchers from Loyola Marymount University, Wayne State University, and Vanderbilt University, particularly looked at how consumers judge and make consumption decisions about snacks perceived as healthier, specifically the role that partitioning of snack packages plays in influencing consumption intentions and decisions.

“To date, much attention has been given to the role of serving size and portion/packaging size and, even more so, to the areas of affect/emotions and unhealthy eating,” they wrote. “Interestingly, however, the question regarding how much is too much when determining appropriate intake of perceptually healthier options is not often raised.”

Because the intended consumption for the highly partitioned products—both perceived healthy and perceived not healthy—were similar, the researchers hypothesized that “the highly partitioned single-serving bags seem to provide a strong cue for how much to eat.”

This stands in contrast with a similar study, conducted by researchers at Ghent University in Belgium, which found that grouping tempting foods into many small packaged versus fewer larger packages may increase consumption.

Nevertheless, the researchers wrote that these findings “suggest that marketing retailers, researchers, and public policy officials should also be paying significantly more attention to how healthy products are packaged.”

Source: Journal of Business Research

Published online ahead of print,

Can health “halos” extend to food packaging? An investigation into food healthfulness perceptions and serving sizes on consumption decisions

Authors: Myla Bui, Andrea Heintz Tangari, Kelly L. Haws

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