Big Food Embraces ‘Small’ in Efforts to Sell More Bad Food

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Little Gulps? Big Food Embraces ‘Small’ in Efforts to Sell More

McDonald’s may have created the Super Size menu, but it's a practice embraced across the Big Food industry. Bigger is Better. Or, at least, it was.

Just order anything off the Cheesecake Factory menu (and try to eat all of it in one sitting) or try to find a better deal on a drink than 7-Eleven’s iconic Big Gulp.

The website Supersizedmeals.com details massive food undertakings—some encouraged by Big Food brands, and others created by their devotees. Morgan Spurlock, director of the 2004 documentary "Super Size Me," detailed what it was like to take this food industry mantra to its most literal extreme--he ate nothing but McDonald's food for a month, seeing his waist expand, overall health decline, and his mood nearly collapse, like a kid gypped out of their Happy Meal toy.

But now, there’s a large, or rather, very tiny, emphasis in another direction for brands pushing fast processed foods: small portions.

"You’ve got the precedent of what happened to the tobacco companies, where it showed for so many years they were basically obfuscating their health impacts and then faced tremendous scrutiny and fines," Will Rosenzweig, dean and executive director of The Food Business School, told USA Today.

Food brands are scared. They don't want to be in the same position as the tobacco industry, but they also know there are major shifts away from processed food as consumers favor meal delivery kits over drive-thru, and home-cooking over frozen pizza. Now, the nation’s largest food brands are adjusting their offerings to reiterate their relevance in our changing food system.

“Coke and Pepsi's 7.5-ounce mini cans, for instance, are in line with the trend of declining U.S. soda consumption, which hit a 30-year low in March,” reports AdWeek.

Soda has been hit the hardest as efforts to curb the nation’s obesity epidemic led to the removal of soda machines from primary schools and some college campuses, as well as some city office buildings. Berkeley, Calif., passed a soda tax last year, and Philadelphia passed one just last month.

"Sugar is the No. 1 thing consumers are trying to cut down on in their diets, and the industry is responding to that by saying, 'We're here to help you be responsible with how much sugar you take in,'" Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst at NPD Group, told AdWeek.Oreos image via Shutterstock

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But it’s not just soda: McDonald’s has shifted its focus away from its Super Size moniker to products like the “Mac Jr.” a smaller version of the Big Mac. There are Oreo Thins, “which have fewer calories than the original cookie,” reports AdWeek, and mini frappuccinos at Starbucks.

And, on the surface, these are progressive moves; helping consumers curb calorie consumption is a step toward a healthier food system.

"No one wants to use the word 'diet' anymore," Liz Aviles, VP of market intelligence at Upshot, tells AdWeek. "In terms of product introductions, things labeled 'low fat' or 'no fat' have become passé. Balance is a more positive perspective on eating. It's not about denial. Smaller products incorporate the idea that you can have indulgences, in smaller doses."

But there’s science that says the opposite is also true. Take the diet soda craze of the last half-century. Research has shown that when people drink diet soda, they often overindulge in other areas of their diet—justifying junk foods because they’re skimping on the calories in their soda choice. (Studies also show that artificial sweeteners in diet sodas may trigger sugar-like responses in the body, essentially negating their purported “diet” benefits.) Could enjoying a Mac Jr. or an Oreo Thin also have the same impact— leading consumers to just shift their calories, rather than decrease them?

There is also research that points to junk foods as having addictive properties—which could mean that reducing the overall size of unhealthy foods does little to thwart our appetite for them. And, for a nation with emotional eating issues, there's the psychological impact of eating 3 Mac Jr's instead of just one Big Mac.

Brands, though, are still confident that their processed foods can play a role in our food system, acquiescing to consumer concerns and making modifications as they go. Some have taken to labeling the presence of genetically modified ingredients ahead of Vermont’s GMO labeling law that went into effect last week. Others have removed artificial ingredients, reduced antibiotics in livestock feed, and taken steps to more ethical standards for raising animals. The Internet's role is vital--companies are hearing from their customers 24/7 about what they want to (not) see in their food products.

"Consumers want more transparency when it comes to food choices," Craig Annis, global VP of corporate affairs for Mars Inc., told AdWeek.

"We're trying to provide healthier options, and we've gotten a very positive response, from both consumers and stakeholders."

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Big Gulp image via Shelly Munkberg

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