In an effort to curb the obesity epidemic, governments and public health institutions have attempted to discourage the “supersizing” of food portions by advocating portion limits and health warnings. But these efforts have been met with resistance and little success from both consumers and food marketers.
Now a new study shows that people can be encouraged to choose smaller, healthier portions without sacrificing enjoyment. The researchers found that when people concentrate on the multisensory pleasure of eating, rather than focusing on value, health, or hunger, they are much more willing to be satisfied with smaller food portions.
The study, published in the Journal of Marketing Research, found that people will choose smaller portions of chocolate cake when asked to vividly imagine the multisensory pleasure (taste, smell, texture) of similar desserts.
But how can focusing on the pleasure of food make people want smaller portions? When it comes to eating, pleasure is inversely related to size.
Food enjoyment peaks within the first few bites. Then each additional bite becomes less enjoyable. It is the last bite which determines the overall impression of how much we enjoyed the food.
When people choose portions based on monetary value or the fear of being hungry, they end up choosing one of today’s supersized portions which are just not that enjoyable to eat toward the end.
The researchers found that, contrary to health warnings, this multisensory imagery does not reduce expected eating enjoyment or a person’s willingness to pay for the food.
In fact, “focusing on the pleasure of eating, rather than value for money, health, or hunger, makes people happier to pay more for less food,” said Pierre Chandon, Ph.D., the L’Oréal Chaired Professor of Marketing, Innovation and Creativity at INSEAD.
For the study, the researchers conducted five different experiments using different groups such as French schoolchildren, adult Americans and young Parisian women.
In the first experiment, 42 French schoolchildren were asked to imagine — using all five senses — the pleasure of eating familiar desserts and were then asked to choose portions of brownies. These children chose brownie portions that were two sizes smaller than those chosen by children in a control condition.
In another experiment, the researchers imitated high end restaurants by describing a regular chocolate cake as smelling of “roasted coffee” with “aromas of honey and vanilla” with an “aftertaste of blackberry.” After hearing this vivid description, 190 American adults chose a smaller portion compared to those in a control condition where the cake was simply described as “chocolate cake.”
In the third experiment, participants were told about the calorie and fat content of each cake portion. This nutrition information also led people to choose a smaller portion, but at a cost: It reduced the amount that people were willing to pay for the cake by about one dollar compared to the multisensory condition.
Another experiment found that people underestimated how much they would enjoy eating small portions of chocolate brownies. Although the participants expected to enjoy small portions less than larger ones, both portions were enjoyed equally. This mistake was eliminated by multisensory imagery, which made people better forecasters of their own future eating enjoyment.
“Having more descriptive menus or product labels that encourage customers to use their senses can lead to positive outcomes for consumer satisfaction and health, but also for profits,” said Yann Cornil, Ph.D., assistant professor of the Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia.
“This could make for a more sustainable food industry, which struggles to grow in the face of today’s obesity epidemic.”
The study was based on Cornil’s Ph.D. dissertation which was conducted at INSEAD under the mentorship of Chandon who is also the director of the INSEAD Sorbonne University Behavioural Lab.