Ninety-nine versus 100 calories: How marketing affects mindset

Today, grocery store aisles are lined with a plethora of smaller-portioned bags and boxes; arguably 90% packaging and 10% actual food. Yet, very little is known about how the package labelling and descriptions affect consumer preference.

In 2004, Kraft Foods Group (owner of Heinz) introduced a line of 100-calorie mini packs of some of their most popular snack foods, launching a snacking revolution. The smaller portions appealed to calorie-conscious shoppers and generated over US$75 million in sales that first year alone.

Christopher Lee, marketing professor (W. P. Carey School of Business), conducted a study to better understand how certain cues on 100-calorie packs affect consumer preference – and whether one calorie really makes a difference.

If someone is faced with buying a 99-calorie pack, 100-calorie pack, or 101-calorie pack—which one are they more likely to choose? Does one calorie in either direction really make a difference?

In our research, respondents generally had more favourable attitudes to products with distinctive calorie information—99 and 101—as opposed to non-distinctive—100.

Another way to think about the results of our study is through the lens of pricing. Consumers tend to prefer things that end in 99, such as £5.99, even though the extra penny isn’t financially meaningful. It is not by accident that many of the products consumers buy—such as food and gas—tend to end with .99.

Our research is suggesting that, similar to pricing, a one-calorie difference may influence our perceptions about a product. That being said, attitudes and purchase intentions were the same for 99 or 101 calories, so it isn’t the direction of difference but rather the uniqueness of the calorie count.

What happens to consumer preference when labels include a calorie count and descriptive words, like “mini” or “jumbo”? Does adding words make a difference?

Words do make a difference. When a consumer sees “jumbo” they think big, and when a consumer sees “tiny” they think small. Those words set a reference point, or expectation, of what the consumer will receive.

In our study, respondents rated products more favourably when “tiny” was paired with 99 calories than when it was paired with 100 calories. Similarly, respondents rated products more favourably when “jumbo” was paired with 100 calories than 99 calories.

When the descriptive words and calorie count didn’t align, for example, “99 calories” and “jumbo”, consumers rated the products less favourably. Both the descriptive words — “jumbo” versus “tiny”—and calorie count—99 versus 100—combine to set an expectation. Aligning the descriptive words on the packaging with the calorie count on the nutrition label makes it easier for the consumer to process while also setting a consistent expectation of what the consumer will receive.

What can food marketers take away from your research when it comes to consumer preference and package labelling?

Calorie counts are heavily regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). FDA guidelines state that food with more than 50 calories should be rounded to the nearest 10 calories to allow for natural variability in products based on weather, soil, processing, etc. That is why when you’re shopping at a grocery store, you never see 99 calories or 101 calories.

Food marketers could potentially lobby the FDA for more flexibility with calorie counts given our research shows small calorie differences can influence perceptions. One option could be a compromise between marketers and policy-makers that keeps calorie counts rounded to the nearest five or 10 calories on the nutrition label but allows the marketer to have an asterisk on the packaging outside of the nutrition-facts panel to indicate the actual calorie count.

In addition, food marketers should be aware of the relationship between package labels and calorie counts. Our research shows that both the calorie count and package labelling make meaningful differences in health perceptions.

Five simple tips for dieting success

In our current society, where we’re constantly told contradicting advice, surrounded by food and diet trends within what seems to be an exponentially growing health and fitness industry, finding simple and effective ways to successfully lose weight may be harder than you’d think.

A recent article published by the Houston Methodist clearly summarises five simple tips, perfect for anyone who is dieting.

Kristen Kizer, a clinical dietitian at Houston Methodist Hospital, notes “We live in society that believes lower calorie food means more weight loss and ultimately better health…while this is true in some respects, to be successful at both losing weight and keeping it off, it’s important to focus on the nutritional value, not just calorie value, of your food.

1. Focus on real foods

I.e., foods that could have been eaten 200 years ago before the rise of the processed type. Kizer recommends thinking of foods on a spectrum based on how processed they are. For example, an apple is a real food, apple-sauce is partly processed but okay, whereas an apple toasted pastry is very processed.

According to Kizer, in addition to their nutritional quality – helping to keep the body in check – real foods will help dieters feel better and even sleep better. However, she emphasises to bear in mind the ingredients list; if they cannot be bought in a store, or even pronounced, chances are the food isn’t as real as it claims to be.

2. Stop when you’re full

Kizer mentions that once food is swallowed, it takes about 15 to 20 minutes for the body to register it. Therefore, remembering to eat slowly and mindfully may help with this stomach-to-brain-delay. She suggests thinking of hunger on a scale from one to ten–one being starving and ten being painfully full, “Check in with your hunger scale often… time meals and snacks accordingly so to avoid prolonged hunger and overeating”.

3. Everything in moderation

More often than not, our eyes are bigger than our stomach. If you’ve ever travelled to America, you may have noticed (it’s hard not to) the enormous portion sizes they give you at restaurants. However, they’re certainly not the only ones to suffer from this.

Kizer recommends that if you’re out at a restaurant, don’t be afraid to split a meal with a friend. Or, when at home, serve yourself on a smaller plate to give yourself the illusion of eating just as much.

4. Hydrate

Drinking water can help control hunger, as it engages sensors in the stomach that make you feel fuller longer. It’s common to mistake hunger for thirst, so simply staying hydrated can eliminate these feelings of needing to constantly eat. Kizer suggests having a full glass of water before or between meals will help to induce a feeling of fullness.

5. Aim for a lifestyle change

Although short-term (fad) diets may sound appealing – they simply are not sustainable. Kizer notes that whether it’s conscious or not, there is often a mentality of going back to old behaviours once the target weight is reached. Furthermore, lifestyle changes begin in the mind and are much more successful in the long run. Kizer suggests starting with small changes that you can live and are interesting in making. Having a strong why behind the changes you are making will also help the process.

“More often than not, we know what we should do,” Kizer says. “The hard part is implementing something that works for us. Don’t overwhelm yourself. Aim for one change at a time.”

Do you have to be rich to be healthy?

Warning: if you intend to consume as many calories as possible, for the least amount of money, then this article may not be for you. But what if do you intend to prioritise nutrition? Like a lot of us these days, you may be questioning if it’s really possible to sustain a healthy, nutritious lifestyle—without emptying your bank account.

Take the example of a Big Mac. Approximately 540 calories worth of purely processed carbs and saturated fat, leaving you out of pocket by £3.99. So why not choose the more nutritious option? Instead, why not go for 540 calories worth of strawberries, for a bargain price of £14.60? Or, the equivalent caloric intake of blueberries, coming in slightly cheaper at £10.60?

No wonder the perception of “having to be rich to be healthy” is so widespread. No wonder more and more people these days are turning to cheaper, more convenient alternatives, albeit packed with sugar and saturated fats. And no wonder rates of obesity have been exceeding those ever observed before.

So, the question is, do you have to be rich to be healthy, or is it all just an excuse?

A study carried out by nutritionists at Harvard University compared the diets of nearly 80,000 women. Their findings didn’t surprise them; women who spent more on food tended to have a healthier diet. Yet, interestingly, they concluded that in terms of the best investment for dietary health, the purchase of plant-based foods came out on top.

Nutritional information is being made more public, meaning we can compare the cost of foods based on their nutritional content. Meat costs roughly three times more than vegetables, yet yields 16 times less nutrition (based on the accumulated amount of nutrients). So, because meat is less nutritious and costs more, vegetables will net you 48 times more nutrition per pound (lb), compared to meat!

But are you likely to eat a pound of meat a day? Even exchanging two beef burgers for the equivalent weight of vegetables generates some serious health benefits. Not only will you consume on average 24 times more nutrients, reduce the amount of saturated fats and cholesterol in your diet, but you’ll help keep your bank balance afloat.

Dr Michael Greger, founder of NutritionFacts.org, suggests that if you are looking to buy foods high in nutritional value, then opt for more beans, whole grains, nuts and soya products. These foods not only offer a healthy alternative to meat-based protein, but are significantly cheaper.

So, do you really have to have buckets of cash in the bank to sustain a healthy lifestyle? It’s clear that processed foods only beat healthier options on a cost-per-calorie basis. Slowly cutting your meat consumption is just one way of getting around this, whilst directing your diet towards plant-based alternatives and fresh fruit and veg (instead of packaged products), is an efficient way to sustain both your health, and your bank balance.

The message remains: you don’t have to compromise your capital to eat healthily; all it takes is an open-mind and willingness to prioritise.

Marketing and manipulation: How susceptible are you?!

Imagine Megan Fox biting into an apple. The skin breaks and the juices pour onto her mouth, a single drop reaches her chin. She licks her lips, her tongue lingering as she savours the sweet, succulent taste.

Now, imagine if more time was spent setting up this scenario, followed by an ‘unrelated’ question “How much do you like apple mac computers?”. According to science, it’s guaranteed you will rate them more highly than without being told how much Megan Fox enjoys apples.

So, just as your mind has been manipulated, marketing plays on how predictably the human mind can be influenced, in view to selling products. In this case, the language used to depict Megan Fox and her juicy apple is associated with sex.

Sex sells. Marketing campaigns with references to sex engage the pleasurable reward centre of the brain, so it’s not difficult to see how priming people with sex is incredibly effective. However, sex is not the only subconscious influence to take hold of our behaviour. Be it our addiction to Starbucks coffees, an uncontrollable urge for McDonald’s, or simply a fear to branch away from branded items; all are unknowingly provoked by scientific advances in marketing strategies.

Take the example of Coca-Cola. It tastes better than Pepsi, right? Yet, can you really be sure that the effectiveness of Coca-Cola’s campaign isn’t manipulating your preference?

These days, scientists use brain imaging methods to examine how our brains respond to brands – such as Coke versus Pepsi. Participants were given two taste tests – one blind and the other clearly labelled Coke or Pepsi. When participants were unaware of the brand, the pleasure centre of the brain was active as they drank Pepsi. However, when they knew which was which, the area of the brain associated with memory and emotion was active—this time in favour of Coke. This shows us that although people really enjoy the taste of Pepsi, the emotional connection and nostalgia associated with Coca-Cola’s brand—driven by extremely effective advertising—creates a preference for Coke.

Remember when our names started to appear on Coke bottles? This personal marketing ploy generated a significant increase in sales. The company’s television ads are orientated around everything a person would want to be; sociable, fun and free. As consumers, we are largely motivated by what makes us feel good, so it’s not surprising we subconsciously succumb to a bottle of Coke every now and then.

KitKat’s are arguably the most popular chocolate bar in the world. But is this really down to how it tastes? Or could it be that whether at home, school, or in the workplace, we “have a break, have a KitKat”. This tagline quickly became ingrained in the public’s mind, becoming one of the most successful brand slogans in history.  Needless to say, 60 years down the line and the marketing strategy continues to have a profound effect.

A slightly more laughable strategy is that used by the junk-food company, Frito-Lay. This junk-food giant, responsible for the sales of Cheetos, decided to hire a neuromarketing firm to investigate how we respond to these cheesy puffs.

But can you guess the selling point of these products? The pattern of brain activity concluded that consumers responded strongly to the messiness of the Cheetos. These cheesy puffs turn our fingers orange with residual cheese dust, but who knew that this is what keeps us coming back for more? Frito-Lay subsequently launched an award-winning campaign targeted at our love of cheesy mess. Unsurprisingly, sales soared.

Whether it’s the obvious use of sex appeal, celebrity endorsement, or the catchiness of a jingle that makes us pause when we come across a KitKat or McDonalds, we remain naïve to campaigns tapping into our subconscious desires. As human beings, we can’t help but gravitate towards familiar phrases and symbols. It’s not surprising the marketing industry has learned to exploit the predictability of our behaviour.

So what can we do? We can be aware. Well-informed consumers are less likely to form irrational judgments, are more likely to make more deliberate and healthy decisions, and even save money by not succumbing to branded products. Next time you find yourself wandering into a high-end supermarket or a chain coffee shop, take a moment to question your motives. Are you there because you genuinely prefer these products, or have you, too, been unknowingly influenced by brand identity?

Maybe you’ll never know.

2017’s Most Ridiculous Food & Diet Trends in Order of Ridiculousness

As the marketing industry is taking hold of our modern health-conscious minds, new food and diet trends are continuing to emerge.  Whilst some are backed by a wealth of evidence, others rely on celebrity endorsement, manipulative wording and consumer naivety.  Don’t let them fool you…

1. The rise of superfoods

As consumers, we are constantly being told certain ‘super’ foods are able to aid weight loss, boost our physical activity and even slow the ageing process.

The question is, what exactly distinguishes a superfood from the mundane kind, and do any of their claims hold true?

It seems that the properties necessary to define a food as ‘super’ are the number of antioxidants present.  Antioxidants are substances that fight free-radicals in the body, and are incredibly important as too many free-radicals can damage cells, causing illnesses such as cancer. Popular superfoods include blueberries, chia seeds and golgi berries.  The more exotic they sound, the easier it is to market these foods as having extraordinary properties.

The catch: when healthy, our bodies are incredibly efficient at fighting free-radicals.  Therefore, shoveling spoonful’s of chia seeds onto our porridge or always opting for a turmeric latte will not enhance our bodies ability to fight these substances.

As is the case with supplements, if we do not require them, then they shall pass through our system bearing no purpose, our body remaining naïve to our enthusiastic efforts.

2. Detoxing the body with tea

From brushing our teeth with charcoal to buying into the never-ending emergence of detox teas, it’s amazing how effective celebrity endorsement can be. 

Unfortunately, only organs such as the liver, through a complex series of biochemical reactions, can detox the body.  Tea does not share this ability.  Only through a balanced intake of food through our diet can we aid this detoxifying process.  What tea does do is increase the rate we go to the toilet. The laxative properties can even be harmful if symptoms persist – with a risk of dehydration.

The only positive that can be drawn from detox teas is the effect they have on the mind.  When someone kick-starts their day with a health-conscious decision such as ‘attempting’ to detox their body and become a healthier version of themselves, is this necessarily a bad thing?

Health conscious decisions made first thing in the morning are likely to guide our behaviour throughout the day, so if drinking detox tea’s help you cut out foods high in saturated fat and sugar, then go for it.

However, if you don’t fancy spending an extra £25 a month on tea, opt for water and lemon, or challenge yourself simply by doubling the amount of water you drink in the morning.

3. The juicing / smoothie trend

Although juicing is a quick and easy way to consume fruit and veg alongside the ‘nutritional value,’ there are a few things you need to know before you begin to juice the entire fruit bowl.

The main issue: once fruit is blended, the sugar is no longer confined and seeps out of the cell, becoming more readily available to the human body when consumed.  What this means is that although a whole banana poses no threat whatsoever to our sugar levels, one cannot say the same about the blended kind.

Of course, a single blended banana won’t do any harm.  However, when juicing we tend to be less mindful of what goes into it.  We rarely eat a whole apple, banana and strawberries in one serving, and we’d be pretty full if we did.  But when juiced, we don’t think about what we’re drinking, let alone the sugar content.

Whilst whole fruits are not only a more balanced form of snack, they’ll fill you up for longer too! However, the ease and popularity of smoothies can’t be denied, so if you do jump on the bandwagon, be sure to incorporate veg into them too.

4. Dairy-free alternatives

Alongside the rise of veganism, demand for dairy-free alternatives to milk, yogurt and even cheese is rapidly increasing.  Coffee shops and supermarkets have responded by provided endless alternatives.  However, when we take a closer look at these substitutes, convincing yourself dairy is the enemy may not be the best idea.

Although nuts may be a great addition to a healthy diet (and packed full of protein); the milk itself is inferior.  Not only do nut milks contain nearly 5 times less protein than cow’s milk, extra sugar is often added to enhance its taste.

When opting for whole milk or semi-skimmed in your morning latte, the sugar tends to be naturally occurring.  The same can’t be said for oat, almond or soya milk, with coconut milk coming out on top in terms of added sugar.

It remains that full-fat and even semi-skimmed cow’s milk have a higher caloric content (compared with all alternatives).  Yet, nutritionally speaking – there is no contest – the carbohydrate, protein and fat content in cow’s milk provide us with an extremely balanced start to the day.  Whether sprinkled on our cornflakes or drizzled over expresso, we have a clear winner.

A contradictory conclusion

Now to contradict myself.  Any decision you make or intention you create to become a healthier version of yourself is half the battle.  Whether it’s to increase your intake of ‘superfoods’ or to swap dairy for soya products, you’ve still managed to carry out this change.  And this is not a bad thing; it’s simply about knowing the right decisions to make.

As this is the millionth article on the internet now ‘busting’ health myths, 2018 is likely to bring to light the amount of fad diets and false information being promoted to the public.

And once we’re aware of these fad’s, the marketing industry is going to find it harder and harder to deceive us. Good luck to them.

Why you should never attempt Kim K’s diet stressed

Recently, more and more of us are attempting to ‘eat like a Kardashian for a week’ or trying the ‘Victoria’s Secret diet.’  Given the dramatic change and sheer ridiculousness of the diets, those attempting them often fail.  Maybe this is because a smoothie and salad a day isn’t enough to get a regular human being through a busy week. However, there is slightly more to it…

 In reality, when Kim K and Co. are given an intense workout and nutrition programme, they’re advised to carry out relaxation exercises and flooded with stress-busting tips.  This is because health professionals understand the importance of stress and how it affects our motivation and ability to lose weight.

Attempting to cut calories when working 9-5 or swamped with deadlines is an ambitious endeavor.  Living in a constant state of stress doesn’t only affect our mind and motivation – but also how our body functions.

Each of us has evolved a system to adapt to stress – known as the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis.  This system is responsible for the release of the primary stress hormone, cortisol. Hence, with more stress comes more cortisol – but can our body cope with an infinite amount of stress? Sadly not.

Whether we’re physically stressed with lack of sleep, in emotional turmoil, or have a high work demand – at some point we all crack under the pressure.  So, during these stressful spells in life, how helpful is carb cutting or calorie restriction?

If you can’t make time for the gym or feel you’re gaining weight, cutting calories can become very tempting. However, you may be doing yourself more harm than good.  Evidence suggests that that restricting ourselves only increases the level of cortisol in our bodies.  Even monitoring calories can impact our psychological well-being, whether we realise it at the time or not.

It’s a similar story for carb cutting – in that it may not be the best idea when your body is already struggling to function.  Although carb consumption depends on the individual – the general rule stands that the more demand we put on our body (through stress, exercise, lack of sleep), the more we need and crave carbs.

So, when attempting a diet with less substance than the Kardashian’s themselves, bear in mind the impact this will have on your body. Work on first reducing the source of stress – whether this means finding time to relax, fixing your sleeping pattern, keeping up with your workload, or all of the above. Because, if we combine calorie cutting with our already stressed-out selves – it may be more trouble than it’s worth…

The Power of Habit: How to Overthrow Your Decisional Dictator

To introduce the concept of a habit to you, I ask you to locate your mobile phone. Where is it now? Are you using it to read this article? Is it by your side, or out in front of you?

It’s been estimated that those, like myself (born in the 90’s), check their phones 150 times a day. With the popularity of social media only expanding, it’s surprised this figure isn’t higher. Additionally, 87% of Americans say their phone never leaves their side, whilst 90% even sleep with their phones! So, rest assured, if you can’t stand to part from your phone even whilst unconscious, you aren’t alone.

It is this precise behaviour of reaching for our phones that becomes automatic, outside of our conscious awareness. If you’ve ever lost your phone for a day – you’ll understand how it can feel slightly unnerving. When these habitual behaviours become disrupted, we go from being unaware of them – to incredibly agitated. However, reaching for our phones is just one example, as up to half of our everyday actions are done unthinkingly.

Habits guide our decisions from the moment we wake up, to the moment our head hits the pillow. Whether it’s what we eat for breakfast in the morning, to how long we stare at our phones before we go to sleep.  As human begins we simply are not aware of how routine, guided by the habits we ourselves once formed, can dictate our lives.

So, can the power and strength of our current habits be the reason they are so hard to break, and why healthy habits are so hard to form? Have you ever tried a new exercise regime or diet, become elated with the results, only to find you slip straight back into your old routine a couple of months later?  Or a slightly cruder example, have you ever known a celebrity who’s lost a lot of weight, bought out a fitness DVD, but gained the weight back in the months following? Many may believe it was just a ploy to earn money, but the truth is, it happens to all of us.

For a healthy behaviour that doesn’t pose an immediate reward, such as exercise or dieting, it’s not surprising that our enthusiasm begins to wane. Research emphasises how quickly participants tend to lapse back into their habitual routine, once the incentive to carry out this healthy behaviour is gone.

However, as powerful as habits may be, it is possible to both disrupt unhealthy habits and create healthy new ones! Research into habit formation is constantly evolving: with a recent emphasis on not only changing your mindset, but how changing something in your environment may make breaking the habit 10x easier!

Stay tuned and subscribe for easy and innovative ways to transform the unhealthy habits you’ve unknowingly formed, into the healthy routine and mindset you’ve always wanted!

Why we emotionally eat, and how to end it

Whether it’s an approaching deadline, a suffocating commute on London’s most expensive human pen (the tube), or simply having to spend a weekend with the in-laws… reaching a certain level of stress or self-pity can mean bad food choices are inevitable.

For some, it’s pizza and carb-heavy meals, but for the majority, it’s chocolate. Sufficiently sweetened to counteract cocoa’s bitterness – a combination with a calling too difficult to disregard – it’s not surprising we crave the stuff, and seek it out in need of comfort.

If the concept of emotional eating is sounding familiar to you, you’re probably wondering why exactly it occurs, and what you can do to avoid it. Growing up, were you ever subject to ‘only sweets at weekends’ or rewarded with sweet treats once you’d finished your homework or a household chore? We’ve quite literally been programmed to associate sweets and chocolate as ‘treat’ foods; feeling lucky when we get our hands on them. When this feeling persists into adolescence or adulthood (when parents no longer rule our eating habits), we’re more likely to seek out these foods.

Add stress into the equation, and a recipe for disaster begins to form. One study divided participants into two groups to see how stress changed their eating habits. A public speaking exercise was used to induce stress in one group, whilst the others were left stress-free. Then, all participants were presented with a buffet meal. Can you guess what those under stress chose?  Compared with the stress-free group, they piled their plates high with sweet fatty foods.  However, only those who stated they were emotional eaters tended to over-indulge.

Clearly, not all of us turn to food when we feel vulnerable. Surveys of peoples eating habits under stress show that only a quarter to half of the samples reported eating more when stressed. Good news for some; slightly unfortunate for those who pile on the pounds during deadlines.

So, what does this tell us? As humans, we learn to associate certain foods with certain feelings; pleasure, relief, comfort and so on. Then, surely we can reverse the process: unlearning this ‘need for greed’. What’s more, eating for comfort is clearly not a natural human instinct, as at least half of us can cope without.

How hard, then, is breaking the link; the one that connects so strongly the stress and self-pity we can’t seem to escape, with the detrimental food choices we make? Probably not as hard as you’d first expect.

If it’s a case of using food to unwind after work, it may be that you need to break routine, create healthy habits, and replace the automatic nature of your eating pattern. Likewise, even if stress hits you unexpectedly like a ton of bricks, bringing comfort eating as a coping strategy to conscious awareness can help. Questioning whether you are even hungry or finding an activity to do when all you want to do is gorge will become easier.

Irrespective of the type of stress or amount of self-pity, incentives will work. Save the money you splash out on your daily caffeine fix at overpriced coffee shops and use this money for something fun.  Reward yourself.  Try telling people of your intentions, and listen to their response. This type of positive reinforcement has been scientifically proven to work—and may just be what keeps you going…

Emotional eating has also been linked to cravings. So stay tuned, or simply subscribe, for innovative and weird ways to abolish chocolate cravings (without having to give it up!).