food and health

Obesity? Packaging is also to blame

Obesity is also about the way you think: images shown on packaging can encourage consumers to overestimate correct portion sizes and exceed daily calorie recommendations.

Decorated cakes, dishes covered in sauces and other images of food prepared and presented as serving suggestions appear all over food packaging displayed on supermarket shelves. There is nothing unusual about this, we take it entirely for granted, but experts have warned that this type of product presentation can encourage consumers to eat more and believe that, what is in reality an oversized portion, is normal.

A feast for the eyes
A slice of cake is shown on a cake mix covered in delicious icing and decorations. It is this decorated cake which the consumer thinks is “normal” and expects to eat once the cake is prepared. But there’s a problem: the icing and the decorations are added extras (also in terms of calories) of the cake you’ve just made, which can lead to mistakes when estimating portions and calories. This is shown by a series of studies carried out by researchers at the Public Health Nutrition journal assessing the effect of images and text displayed on packaging on the food choices of 72 undergraduate students and 44 women working in the food industry. “We estimated that a slice of cake with icing which is shown on the packet contains 134% more calories compared to the portion recommended on the label”, explained John Brand, the lead author of the report, adding that “when the packaging is altered and it is clearly stated that the icing is not included in the nutritional information given on the label, people tend to limit their portion sizes”. This is a clear demonstration of how much packaging can affect people’s food choices.

Read the label carefully
Nowadays, labels offer an incredible wealth of information, enabling consumers to understand the nutritional content of food in great detail so they can make an informed decision on what food is good for their health. However, it is important to know how to read the labels correctly. Going back to the cake mix used in the US study, judging by the image on the packaging, you might be led to believe that the nutritional information (sugar, calories, fat, etc.) shown on the label refers to that slice of cake itself. In reality, the icing is not included in the values shown on the packet. It might seem like a minor detail, but bearing in mind the great attention companies pay to packaging – or rather to how they display their product – as a way of selling their products, it is important not to be misled by the numbers and images shown. “A delicious plateful and an extra-large portion shown on packaging can encourage people to eat too much, further spreading the problem of obesity, but these images mustn’t be allowed to fool the careful and well-informed consumer”, experts explain.

Junk food can seriously damage your health
As discussed in the latest edition of Eating Planet produced by the BCFN, the obesity epidemic has long been a public health problem which has attracted the attention of governments around the world. Nevertheless, measures put in place to inform people of the risks of being overweight have not been effective enough. For this reason, associations like World Obesity International and Consumers International are fighting for new solutions. One of these, which has already been put forward on a number of occasions, focuses on packaging itself. For instance, some have suggested packaging which shows shocking images of the health consequences of being overweight or obese, similar to those on cigarette packets. “The impact of unhealthy food on people’s health is comparable with the effects of smoking”, the Director General of Consumers International, Amanda Long, points out. Her association is fighting for tighter regulations on food packaging in order to warn the consumer of the risks linked to overeating.


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