Skip to content

I have wanted to write a piece on the ethics of today’s international food companies, portion size, obesity and consumer behaviour for a while. I kept putting it off, as many of these same food companies and industry associations are important clients of mine, and so I am in an awkward position. Ironically over the past 16 years, as CEO of a boutique shopper insight agency, I have helped these same brands achieve growth through a better understanding of shopper and consumption behaviour.  On their behalf, I have studied how their brands and categories are bought and consumed, all with the aim of making these same shoppers buy and consume more. It is the capitalist society we live in and the machine must continue to turn, and well, I helped grease the wheels.

However I now face an interesting dilemma. As my expertise and studies around human behaviour have evolved, I have become acutely aware that, just like in Star Wars, my insight ‘force’ can be used for either ‘good’ or ‘evil’. For many years I have used my insight to help brands develop and grow. I just feel that the same insight can and should also be used to help consumers make better choices about how they live and what they eat. I feel myself lured by both sides. I have a sudden affinity to Anakin Skywalker (note to self > buy long flowing white robes and a light sabre).

Eat Less, Move More

Obesity and Diabetes are global issues. They are not a trend, not a fad that will pass. It has been correctly described as an epidemic, albeit a Western world one. The WHO regards childhood obesity specifically as one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century. There is no need to reel off the statistics here. You all have heard them before. That 20% of children as young as 6-11 years old are already obese, rising to over one-third if including ‘overweight’. The Globesity issue is already having implications on life-span, healthcare and mental health, but to be honest we are only seeing the start of the monster. This is putting the health of an entire generation at risk. If it was a virus there would be worldwide panic and huge spend on the vaccine.

Let’s be really clear on this. Eating more calories than you burn has an obvious conclusion. Obesity has many contributing factors. More sedentary lives are a contributor to heart disease and diabetes. (I always liked that joke > “Patient: Look it’s not my fault doc. It is just that Obesity runs in my family. Doctor: No, the problem is that NO ONE runs in your family”). There are other reasons of course, like a lack of knowledge and education, cultural factors and shopper budget restrictions all contribute to obesity. But what consumers are putting into their mouths is the main one, and it is where it makes most sense to tackle the issue regarding behavioural change.

I recently listened to a suicide prevention speaker explain this notion of dealing with root cause with perfect simplicity. Using a metaphor (somewhat ironically considering his subject) he said “If you want to stop young men drowning, you don’t stand in the river trying to catch them and fish them out one-by-one, day after day, administering CPR. It makes much more sense to wade up the river, find out where they are jumping in, and try to work out why and stop them there”. So yes, obesity has many causes but it is what we are consuming, THAT is one of the key ‘up-river’ points. This is where we most need to address the issue and it brings me to the topic of this post – portion and serving size.

Bigger Is Not Better

Many food companies produce products in larger portion sizes than the suggested serving size. They then put ‘suggested serving size’ in grams or millilitres on the label, and tick their ethics box. They are informing consumers of the calories, and the suggested serving, and they claim to have done their bit. But that is simply not ethically sound. You can’t tempt people and then be surprised when they act on the temptation.

For example, apparently the suggested serving on a large 200g bag of Doritos is about 12 chips. Yes. Just 12. Has anyone, ever, opened a 200g bag of Doritos and stopped after the 12th chip saying “Oh hang on, no wait, I’m done. It says 12 so that’s it for me”.  The suggested servings on some frozen lasagne meals states “2.5” while many consumers eat it themselves in one sitting.  500ml is the standard soda SKU size, but that is significantly more than the suggested serving size. So why are we bringing portion sizes to market, higher than suggested serving sizes?

As humans, we make bad choices every day. We smoke even though we know it will kill us. We gamble in casinos even though we know the house always wins in the end. We drink too much and wake up fuzzy and hungover. We lie and cheat even though we know it is wrong and we could be caught. We are irrational beings, driven by the dark forces Freud had so much pleasure uncovering. To make better choices, we need help, not temptation.

Behavioural Economics looks at the psychology of decision making. As a behavioural science, it is concerned not with theory or academic nuance, but with actual behavioural cause and effect, behavioural change. As an example, look at the pending Sugar Tax in the UK. This is a tax which will increase the price of an average soda depending on the sugar content per 100ml. In theory, it has three objectives:

  1. To raise tax funds to deal with the strain being put on the health service from those with obesity and related problems
  2. To force manufacturers to create products with less sugar content
  3. To encourage shoppers to consume less (higher price = lower demand)

That last one, lower demand, is a standard economic argument, but as all behavioural economists know, the human mind doesn’t move in such straight linear lines. A 9-12p hike in the price of your average ‘single serve’ soda is unlikely to have any significant effect on consumer demand and consumption. Markets and consumers adjust, and the average consumer is likely to still consume 500ml of sugared carbonated water with their sandwich at lunch. If you want them to consume less, then don’t give them 500ml to drink in the first place. If the suggested serving size is 250-330ml, then give them that. Period. If we know that you should only eat 12 Doritos at a go, why does the 200g bag exist to tempt us? Why isn’t the 6-pack (6 X 30g single serve packs) the only SKU on the market to serve the ‘sharing’ occasion.

Don’t Eat it All Yourself, Fatty!

This counter argument, often made by brands, is this SHARING SIZE one. Now you can’t make that argument for a 500ml bottle of soda (clearly that is intended to be consumed by one person and so is a flagrant nudge in driving an individual’s consumption beyond the serving size recommendation), but you could use it for a 200g bag of crisps/chips or a King Size/Duo bar of chocolate. But putting the words ‘TO SHARE’ on a product doesn’t excuse you from your social and corporate responsibilities.

For example, the larger DUO sizes of popular confectionery bars are often placed at the key hot spot (primary location adjacent to the till) in Convenience and particularly Gas Station stores. Why? Well because that’s where they will be seen and bought more than a single serve bar. Larger sizes cost more. More money in the till, more profit. The commercial reality of food and beverage production is that the larger 500ml bottle costs only a tiny fraction more to produce but can retail for significantly more. Same with chocolate bars and crisps/chips. If we are chasing profits to satisfy shareholders, then larger sizes deliver on that.

The same is true of bags of crisps/chips and their tempting larger sizes. There is a 60g bag of Doritos called a GRAB BAG. It contains twice the serving recommendation but is far smaller than the 200g bag they sell for ‘collective consumption’. As I said, writing SHARE SIZE on the pack doesn’t excuse your responsibility in making portion sizes that match consumption sizes. Maybe they mean ‘grab bag’ as in ‘you’ll be able to GRAB the flab’?

But You’re Supposed to Share

You can throw whatever research you want at this. You can imagine the possible corporate reply. “Our research shows that X% of chips consumption occasions are consumed with others blah blah”. Well then design multi packs that allows individual portion controlled consumption. 500ml bottles of soda, Duo sized confectionery and 200g bags of chips are simply ethically unsound in my opinion, if we are serious about changing consumer behaviours. However, they remain the right thing to do if you want to maximise corporate profit.

Is this a ‘Nanny State’ suggestion? I don’t think so. We are not suggesting that consumers shouldn’t be able to buy larger sizes and benefit from some price discount in so doing. What I am suggesting is that the consumer goods industry starts to take genuine responsibility for serving size and the arising consumption volumes. That we continue to offer multipack options with individual portion controlled sizes, and that the larger ‘tempting’ packs are discontinued minimised on shelf.

It is everywhere. Ask for a beer in an Irish or UK bar and you will be served a pint, 568mls of calorific yeasty goodness. Ask for a beer in most other European countries and you will probably be served a 200-300ml as a standard serve. Both consumers enjoy the beer. Larger serving sizes are a loaded gun, and the food and beverage companies bringing them to market are the ones in control of the ammunition.

Remember that earlier suicide prevention speakers comment? We need to start upstream to address this, and one sure way to change behaviour is to change what people are able to buy and consume. Pringles produce their product in an entire tube and even had the honesty/stupidity (I’m unsure which) to go to market with the truth as a tag-line. “Once you pop, you can’t stop”. It goes down in history as the most honest product claim around portion sizes ever!

I’ve just come back from speaking at another US event. In the hotel café, they were selling cookies. Cookies as big as your head. I took a cookie selfie. I’m not actually sure if that’s a thing, but it is now. The Cookie Selfie. Seriously, someone needs to call STOP at some point. Nobody needs a cookie as big as their head.

Few keep the remaining 200ml of soda for later. No one stops at the 12th Dorito. I believe that the consumer goods industry needs to ask themselves some awkward questions. Namely, what are we doing about that 13th Dorito?

Part of this blog post was first (bravely) presented as part of my keynote recently in Vienna at the Bi-Annual European Snacking Association Conference (essentially a room full of the top management executives from the snacks industry). I would like to thank all delegates for their attention, questions and informed debate and their honesty and genuine interest and feedback afterwards on this issue.  There is nothing more refreshing than an industry event where the vested interests remain open to a better world and the part they could play therein.

While Doritos and Pringles have been singled out as examples in the above post, it could be any brand. This is not a brand issue, it is an industry wide one. These brands were simply used as examples that the average reader would be familiar with. This blog post is just my opinion and all comments, corrections and informed debate welcome, as always.

And if PepsiCo want to send me a box of Doritos to test the ‘13th Dorito will power theory’, my kids would love that too! They can demolish a bag of Doritos way beyond 13!

Subscribe to this blog and be the first to get notified of new posts.

A blog to  inspire and delight

Not yet signed up to receive the latest posts? Do it now!

A blog to  inspire and delight