Consumers Recognize “Small” Portion But not “Large” Ones

Posted 03/15/2017 | By HealthCorps

The average diner who goes to a fast food outlet or restaurant will immediately notice if the portion of food they receive seems “awfully small” for the price or portion standard they are accustomed to.  It’s also clear that most consumers don’t realize just how large portions have become – they’re used to it and they expect it.  In fact, when a well-known brand tries to reduce portion sizes, even just a bit, to meet certain dietary recommendations from public health groups, consumers react quite negatively.  United Kingdom consumers revolted when a chocolate bar company, Toblerone, tried to reduce the size of its chocolate bar, by increasing the gap between each chunk in the bar.  There was quite an uproar and backlash from consumers.

Downsizing seems to really strike a negative chord with most consumers.  They generally feel that they are getting less for their money because they have come to expect super-sized portions.  For fifty years a serving of Coke was measured as 6.5 fluid ounces.  In the last few decades, it has jumped to 16 fluid ounces.  Now you can get 32 ounces at most fast food restaurants, and consumers expect it.  In a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, researchers found that people are far better at accurately identifying when a portion is minimized but not when it is oversized.

The study looked at five different studies that involved a total of 4,842 “portion size judgements.”  After compiling data the researchers found that people are easily able to more accurately estimate when (food) quantity decreases compared to when quantity increases.  Based on the data, consumers thought a portion had only increased by 72%, when the portion had been doubled (a clear underestimation).   When faced with portions that were halved, many of the subjects in the five studies estimated that the portion had been cut by 53% – very on point.  They could tell smaller with accuracy but bigger “seemed smaller” to them.

One expert offered the perspective that super-sizing is a “lose-lose situation.”  Consumers don’t realize just how much food they are eating, they don’t want to pay a fair price for it, and they eat more than they should.  Most entrees these days could feed two or three people, but unless you go to a restaurant they serves “family-style,” you will likely overeat a serving size meant for more than one person.  One of the five studies that the researchers reviewed really exposed this phenomenon.

In the study, 510 participants were asked to look at five portions of chocolate candies that were measured out in cups.  The subjects, who regularly consumed supersized portions, could not correctly estimate the number of candies in the larger portion.  They dramatically underestimated the number of candies.  But they were very successful at estimating the number of candies in the smallest portion.  Subjects who were generally more accustomed to eating smaller portions, more closely estimated the amounts in each of the five cups, because they seemed to have a more realistic view when looking at the five portions.

The experts offer that downsizing has a limiting factor, namely that you can only make a portion smaller to a point.  But supersizing has no limits and it makes people expect more.  One strategy that could help is to get people to have more visual acuity when it comes to reasonable and sensible portion sizes.  That strategy is more likely to allow someone to really notice if they are getting a significantly larger portion, rather than just taking note when they suddenly get less.

What is clear is that we have all likely become used to eating larger portions of most foods.  It’s easy to recognize a large apple or a small apple and the same holds true for a banana or cucumber.  A portion size of an entrée of chicken or serving of pasta may not be so obvious.  Use your fingertips to wrist to “hover over a protein choice” and visually measure a portion of a chicken breast or fish filet (one quarter inch thick).  A half of a tennis ball equals a serving of pasta or rice, and two dice is equal to a portion of cheese.

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