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Food marketers face challenges as we seek to make better choices

25 May 2016


At a time when obesity is described as being of “epidemic” proportions, with serious consequences for individual wellbeing and government health budgets, what role can food marketing play – for good, not just for ill?

That’s at the heart of research being conducted by Dr Natalina Zlatevska, who has joined the Marketing Discipline Group at UTS Business School.

“I’ve always been interested in self-regulation – partly because I am truly terrible at it, despite best intentions,” Dr Zlatevska says. “I’m interested in exploring how marketing influences our ability to control our behaviour.”

With food, her focus is on the effect on decision-making of factors such as packaging and portion size, along with things such as the information provided about foods and how that’s communicated.

When it comes to food, consumers don’t always choose what’s in their long-term interest. The result is that, by one estimate, around two out of three Australians are now obese. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare says excess weight is ahead of smoking in terms of the burden of disease from ill health or premature death in this country.

One view is that food marketing is partly to blame, by encouraging people to make poor choices. However, there is also potential for marketers to have a positive role in encouraging consumers towards healthy decisions.

Dr Zlatevska says food marketers are under increasing pressure over certain techniques they apply.

“Marketers have used changes in portion, plate and package size, as well as the availability of larger multi-pack items, to attract customers and encourage purchase,” she says.

“But social agencies are expressing concern that ‘supersized’ offerings result in overconsumption. So food marketers are facing increasing challenges in using this sort of tactic as a marketing tool.”

In a recent research project, Dr Zlatevska and her co-authors sought to quantify the effect of portion size by bringing together multiple studies on what happens when people eat off smaller plates.

“There have been over 50 studies examining whether or not smaller plates help reduce consumption but surprisingly little consensus on the effect,” Dr Zlatevska says. “Some find that smaller plates help reduce consumption but others don’t.”

The research team collated those previous studies and re-analysed the pooled data. What they found was that, yes, smaller plates can help reduce consumption – but two specific conditions are important.

Overall, they found that reducing the diameter of a plate by 30 per cent – in effect halving its size – led to a 30 per cent reduction in the amount of food consumed, on average.

But the research published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Reseach also found the effect was stronger if diners served themselves, as they serve themselves less.

It was also better if people were unaware their consumption was being monitored. “Using a smaller plate doesn’t seem to have an effect if people realise they are being watched,” Dr Zlatevska says.

The researchers estimate that when a reduction in portion size leads to a 29 per cent decrease in a person’s daily energy intake, they can lose almost 2 kilograms a month.

In another study Dr Zlatevska and collaborator Dr Stephen Holden found that, rather than encouraging dieters to eat smaller amounts, multi-packs containing multiple smaller portions seemed to encourage them to eat more.

They have also examined the unintended consequences for consumers of the introduction of “front of pack” labelling.

In 2014 Australia and New Zealand started implementing a voluntary front of pack labelling system for packaged, manufactured and processed foods. The system includes a star rating, underpinned by an algorithm, that indicates to consumers the overall healthiness of the food. Foods are assigned a rating from half a star up to the top rating of five stars for the healthiest.

As well, nutritional information is added to the front of the pack addressing four elements: energy, saturated fat, sugars and sodium. In the United States, food manufacturers pushed for, and won, the right to add an optional nutrient such as calcium or fibre to that panel of information.

“These summaries are designed to help consumers make better choices in store but my research shows they are, inadvertently, negatively impacting consumer judgments,” Dr Zlatevska says of the research, which is soon to be published.

Mixing “negative” elements, such as saturated fat, with “positive” elements, such as fibre, seems to affect the way consumers process the information. Dr Zlatevska says this illustrates why careful analysis of such initiatives is necessary.

“As researchers, we can help the food industry and food marketers identify which techniques make a positive difference, and which are likely to have the greatest effect,” she says. “That way they can meet the needs of consumers and regulators as well as industry.”