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Food displays, food
colors affect how much people eat, researcher concludes
Mark Reutter, Business & Law Editor
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. –
Variety may be the spice of life – and a key contributor to an
Research by Brian Wansink, a professor of marketing and nutritional science at
the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, challenges the conventional
notion that a person’s ability to control eating and stick to
a successful diet has solely to do with willpower.
Little-understood contextual cues – such as how food is displayed
and its variety of colors – can lead people to overindulge and
unknowingly bulk up, he says in an article he wrote that has been published
in the Journal of Consumer Research.
For example, adults offered six colored flavors of jellybeans mixed
together in the same bowl ate 69 percent more than when the colors were
each placed in separate bowls.
In another study, moviegoers given M&Ms in 10 colors ate 43 percent
more than those offered the same number of M&Ms in seven colors.
Wansink and co-author Barbara E. Kahn, a professor of marketing at the
University of Pennsylvania, concluded that not just variety, but the
perception of variety, stimulates how much a person consumes.
“People eat with their eyes, and their eyes trick their stomachs,”
Wansink said in an interview. “If we think there’s more
variety in a candy dish or on a buffet table, we will eat more. The
more colors we see, the more we eat.”
In the case of jellybeans, a variety of flavors in a bowl was greeted
by such comments as “looks really colorful,” “feels
enjoyable,” “satisfied as I ate” and “gives
me at least one flavor that I like.”
An earlier study by Wansink found that moviegoers given an extra-large
bucket of popcorn will eat up to 50 percent more than those given a
container one size smaller – even when the popcorn is stale.
Other studies have found that, hungry or not, office employees will
eat more if their desks are stocked with food, or if the food is nearby,
or if the package is open, or if the container holding the food is clear
rather than opaque.
“Many of us are reasonably diligent about what we eat, but we
don’t put that much thought into how much we eat,” Wansink
said. “People may decide to eat grapes instead of potato chips
because it’s healthier. Once they make that initial choice, they
tend not to monitor how much they eat. And a pound of grapes isn’t
Consumers need to become more aware of how color, package size, variety
and physical proximity influence the amount of food they ingest.
“If we ate 100 fewer calories a day, instead of gaining 10 pounds
at the end of a year, maybe we’d lose 10 pounds. Small factors,
like the type of candy bowl in your office, might add five more Hershey’s
Kisses a day to your diet,” he said.
“People may say: ‘What’s the big deal? Five more chocolates
isn’t that significant.’ But five more chocolates is 125
more calories per day. Over a month of weekdays, that’s 2,500
calories, or two-thirds of a pound.”
Wansink, the director of the Food
& Brand Lab at Illinois, offered several tips about ways to
• Avoid multiple bowls of
the same food at parties or receptions because they increase perceptions
of variety and stimulate overeating.
• At buffets and receptions
avoid having more than two different foods on your plate at the same
Wansink’s tips for mothers and food vendors to promote healthy
• Arrange foods into organized
patterns and avoid cramming meal tables or restaurant display cases
with too much variety.
• Arrange fruits and vegetables
in less-organized patterns to stimulate appetites.
• Assemble smaller helpings
of more items for children or elderly adults with finicky eating habits.
article by Kahn and Wansink is titled, "The Influence of Assortment
Structure on Perceived Variety and Consumption Quantities" (March