High-calorie package images mislead eaters

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Melissa Osgood

While a picture may be worth a thousand words, pictures displayed on food packages, like cake mix, may be worth hundreds of extra calories, according to research from the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.

Think of the typical box of cake mix sold at the grocery store: the slice displayed on the packaging depicts a typical serving size for the cake alone, with the requisite nutritional information printed on the back. But food manufacturers, to woo a shopper wheeling down the aisle, market their product covered in frosting and other confectionary flair to best present the cake in all its indulgently frosted glory.

That little marketing gimmick can be a calorie trap for consumers. Researchers at the lab found cake advertisements drenched in frosting depict more than twice the number of calories compared to what’s listed on the nutritional label. And what’s more, those images can stimulate even the most nutritionally conscious people to overeat.

“If we see a slice of cake smothered in frosting on the cake box, we think that is what is normal to serve and eat. But that’s not what is reflected in the serving size recommendation on the nutrition label,” says John Brand, lead author and postdoctoral researcher at the lab. The research appears in Public Health Nutrition.

The deceptive powers of food packaging may not be a problem limited to cake mix. Brand warns that packaging can exaggerate the nutritional facts of the product in ways that flummox consumers and lead to overserving. Sauces on main dishes, dip alongside chips and sprinkles on ice cream all might have similar subliminal effects.

But there is good news from the new research: a simple disclaimer stating that supplemental extras like frosting pictured on the box are not part of the nutritional information listed on the label can neutralize the image’s impact.

In a series of studies, Brand and Brian Wansink, the John S. Dyson Professor of Marketing and director of the Food and Brand Lab, investigated packaging of 51 different dry cake mixes. A slice of cake as depicted on a typical box averaged 244 calories, about equal to the calories listed as a recommended serving. But when frosted, those servings topped 600 calories, a jump of 134 percent.

In a survey of female undergraduates, the researchers found these overly-caloric depictions caused the students to overestimate serving size. And it’s not just the average consumer who gets duped: Women in the food service industry, who were nutritionally conscious for a living, selected cake slices that had on average 122 more calories than what is recommended on the label.

But when both groups were given a reminder that extra items like frosting are not included in the nutrition label serving size, the women’s estimation of an appropriate serving size was significantly reduced.

“Undoubtedly, companies don’t intend to deceive us when they include frosting in cake box depictions, but these seemingly small elements of packaging can have a huge difference,” says co-author Wansink.

The researchers concluded that manufacturers can reduce the impact of misleading imagery on their food packaging and help consumers make more informed serving size decisions by explicitly stating what is included in the nutritional information.

Matt Hayes is managing editor and social media officer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.


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