Food manufactures know that packaging plays a huge role in what people choose to buy. But new research suggests that it can also impact how much you eat of what’s inside: People tend to eat larger quantities of bite-size junk foods when they come in clear packages, according to a new series of studies recently published in Journal of Marketing.
For the studies, researchers compared how much cereal, candy, cookies, and carrots people ate while watching TV. The catch? In certain instances, the foods came in transparent packaging. But at other times, it was in partially transparent or opaque packaging. Compared to opaque packaging, clear packaging led the participants to eat 69 percent more Fruit Loops, 58 percent more M&Ms, 38 percent fewer cookies, and 78 percent fewer baby carrots. There were no significant differences between the amount of food eaten from transparent and partially transparent packages.
See, transparent packaging has two opposing effects: It showcases the food, which stokes your appetite and entices you to eat more, says lead author Xiaoyan Deng, Ph.D., assistant professor of marketing at Fisher College of Business Department of Marketing and Logistics. At the same time, a clear package allows you to see how much you’ve eaten, so you can, in theory, monitor your intake and eat less.
So which force is stronger? Turns out, it completely depends on what you’re eating. The tastier the food looks, the more difficult it is to resist and the more likely clear packaging will work against you. Case in point: Participants ate more Fruit Loops and M&Ms, but fewer carrots, says Deng. But a food’s size can also affect whether people practice self-control, says Deng.
When foods are bite-sized, you’re more likely to tell yourself it’s OK to eat just one little piece…and repeat it every time you dip your hand in the bag, says Deng. That’s why participants ate more M&Ms when they could see them—but fewer cookies. See, when you eat larger foods—particularly unhealthy ones—you’re more likely to tell yourself ahead of time that you’re going to need to tap into your store of willpower, says Deng. So you set yourself up to stop eating after just one or two of the items.
The takeaway? It’s probably a good idea to keep bite-sized versions of unhealthy foods in opaque containers so you don’t go overboard—but with something like cookies or even carrots, clear containers are a better bet.