Could the size of marketed foods be the cause of obesity?

In 2018, Statistics Canada reported that almost one in three Canadians was obese. Similar figures have been reported in Australia and the United States, where more than forty percent of the population is obese. It is also a growing concern in India.

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Obesity isn’t the only diet-related disease of concern – diabetes is just as prevalent.

When it comes to such diseases, diet and physical activity help reduce the risk of diagnosis. In fact, when it comes to type 2 diabetes, diet and physical activity can prevent 50% of it.

Food packaging plays an important role in diet-related illnesses. We live in a food environment that privileges marketing, sometimes to the detriment of our health.

Consider the average supermarket, where there may be over 60,000 different products in one store. With such competition, food marketers need to get consumers’ attention to buy their products, not a competitor’s. This is why product packaging is so important.

Food marketing uses a variety of tactics, such as using bright, bold colors and eye-catching visuals, to try to persuade consumers to buy certain products.

They also change the size of food images displayed on products – the size of the chip on Dorito’s packaging or the size of the bread on a jar of peanut butter, for example.

The bigger the better

Our recent research looked at how something seemingly innocuous, like the size of food images on product packaging, can impact a person’s likelihood of buying a product.

Although the size of this image may seem innocuous, our research has shown that it can increase the appeal of the food to consumers: the larger the image, the more consumers believe the food will be tasty, which which increases the chances that they will buy the product.

The reason for this is a concept called mental imagery, which suggests that the way people visualize a product in their minds can make them think a product is better, higher quality, or in our case, tastier.

This has implications for food choice. When you think about the most appealing foods, junk foods, such as chips, popcorn, and candy, come to mind.

These types of products often have large, exaggerated images of food on their packaging. Since the size of the food image on these products is larger, it makes the consumers psychologically salivate more, persuading them to buy and eat these unhealthy foods.

color matters

Ours is not the only research that has been done on health habits and food packaging.

Similar research has also found that the color of food packaging and the placement of food images on a product also impact whether or not consumers are likely to purchase a product.

When it comes to colors, red dramatically increases the perceived taste of a food, while green increases the perceived healthiness of the food.

Images of food higher up on the package suggest that the food is ‘light’ and therefore ‘healthy’, making it more likely for a consumer to purchase the product.

Previous studies have also shown that children easily remember junk food brand names and that parents often listen to their children when making food choices.

Additionally, the use of traffic lights on food labels promotes healthier food choices by allowing people to identify nutritional content directly on food packaging.

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Knowing and understanding how appearance affects food desirability is crucial for marketers and has resulted in a particular visual language among consumers and products.

This allows, for example, people with diabetes and hypertension to quickly locate foods suitable for their needs in a grocery store.

However, it also makes some consumers vulnerable to marketing ploys when they are unaware of how advertisers are manipulating them.

Sound Buying Strategies

There are some strategies consumers can use while shopping to help maintain healthy habits. Instead of focusing on food images on packaging, we recommend consumers to focus more on nutritional needs and requirements.

Consumers should read the entire front and back nutrition label to try to make the best informed decision possible and try not to be influenced by the appearance of the image on a package.

Don’t be tempted by the size of the food image: potato chips or gummy bears are fine as a little treat, but if you’re tempted by those food items every time you walk into your local grocery store, it can have serious consequences for your health.

The packaging of food products not only has implications for consumers, but also for policy makers.

Most governments focus on nutrition labels and how food marketers advertise to consumers of all ages, such as rules limiting junk food ads during Saturday morning cartoons. But regulation should start even more fundamentally with the packaging itself.

While it may seem extreme to regulate the size of a scoop on a tub of ice cream, the size of the food image is especially relevant when it comes to junk food.

If we want to reduce the prevalence of food-related health problems, such as obesity and diabetes, regulate the size of images, which we see first in the grocery aisle, on food products might just be what it takes.

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