Labeling Food Sizes Affects Perceptions
June 25, 2013

Labeling Food Sizes Affects Perceptions Of Portions

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

The idea of portion control was at the center of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s so-called soda ban, and a new study from a pair of Cornell University researchers has found describing a portion size can affect eating habits in the same way smaller portions can reduce food intake.

According to the study published in the journal Health Economics, labeling something as “Regular” or “Double Size” impacts how much people eat and how much customers are willing to pay, regardless of the actual portion size.

The Cornell researchers began by serving two different portion sizes of lunch items in either one cup (small) or two cups (large). For some participants, the small and large portions were labeled “Half-Size” and “Regular.” For the others, the same portions were labeled “Regular” and “Double-Size.” The labeling for the first group indicated that the two-cup serving was the normal size, while it was suggested to the second group the one-cup portion was the regular size.

The scientists found the varying “Regular” portions significantly impacted how much people ate. When served identical large portions, participants ate more when it was labeled “Regular” than when it was labeled “Double-Size.” The perceived difference was so great that “Double-size” portion-eaters left 10 times as much food on their plates, the researchers said.

To see how much patrons will pay for differently labeled portion sizes, the researchers set up a kind of food auction. When an auctioned item was labeled “Half-Size,” study volunteers only wanted to spend half as much as when the same portion was labeled “Regular.” Only the labels themselves, not the visual appearance of each serving, were used to indicate the amount of food on each plate compared to a supposed normal serving.

Taken together, the two experiments show people are not only willing to pay more for a bigger sounding portion, they will also eat more of a larger portion if it is arbitrarily considered “Regular.”

For those concerned about the health impacts of larger portion sizes, both consumers and producers could benefit from standardization of food size-labeling, the Cornell researchers said in a statement. By clearly defining what a “small” or a “large” is, customers would be able to know just how much food they are ordering no matter where they are.

The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control and Prevention (CDC) has posted several portion control steps on their official website that people can take when ordering food at a restaurant, including splitting an entrée with a friend or asking for a to-go box when the dinner arrives. The CDC also suggests “spoiling your dinner” with a healthy snack before going out to eat.

The Mayo Clinic in Minnesota also has serving size recommendations on its website. The clinic suggests a serving of pasta should be similar in size to a hockey puck, and protein portions should be about the size of a deck of cards.

Some companies are even seeing a business opportunity in portion control. A recent blog post on mentioned $3 “portion control plates” available at CVS.