Portion-control packaging is on the rise as the U.S. obesity rate grows and food marketers face increasing pressure to do something about it.
When it comes to our food, Americans apparently have no more concept of portion control than they do self control – obesity has become a U.S. epidemic.
Critics say it’s because our “super size” culture has distorted what we perceive as a normal portion. Consider that 20 years ago the average soda was packaged in a 6.5-ounce bottle, while, today, it is more likely to top out at 20 ounces or more.
“The dilemma is that we’ve lost a sense of proportion,” says Dr. John Stanton, a food marketing professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “One way food companies can be a great help is to help [consumers] come back from 20 or 30 years of eating larger portions.”
And they are. In the last year, makers of snacks, confections and other food categories have been steadily introducing smaller, individually portioned packages of their most popular products, and even some new ones.
It’s not completely altruistic, though. To a great extent, it’s because lawyers and public interest groups have been hounding the food industry to curb portion sizes that, they contend, invite people to overeat; legislators are also initiating a number of obesity-related bills, including a few that would tax foods and beverages thought to have minimal nutritional value.
There are also other reasons why the concept of portion size is gaining ground among food marketers.
“It’s because they’ve run out of other nutrients and vitamins to tout,” says Dr. Stanton. “We’ve done low sodium, low sugar, low fat and low carb—what’s left? How about the only one that makes sense.”
Leading the portion-control pack
Kraft Foods was the first to take a stand and call out portion control in its packaging. Through its Nabisco unit, the company, last June, introduced 100-calorie packs of Oreos, Chips Ahoy!, Cheese Nips, Wheat Thins and Nabisco fruit snacks in individual pouches. In addition to a downsized package structure, the pre-portioned products were actually reformulated to contain less sugar and fat.
“The idea is to snack sensibly and in moderation by controlling how much and how often you eat,” says Joy Bauer, registered dietitian and author of The 90/10 Weight-Loss Plan. “Pre-portioned, low-fat snacks can help make it a little easier.”
Kraft has since added two more varieties to the 100 Calorie Packs brand, which, according to IRI data, has taken in $111 million in sales since its inception. Kraft also went with portion-control packaging for the February 2005 introduction of its Kraft Light Done Right Grab & Pour packets—tiny pouches that fit neatly into a pocket and measure out 35 calories of salad dressing.
Now, it seems, other food manufacturers are following suit. “The food industry likes to be first at being second,” explains Dr. Stanton. “A lot of [manufacturers] were afraid of portion control products. But as the low-carb trend started to peak, they realized it’s about the calories.”
Frito-Lay has settled on 75 for its efforts. The company rolled out downsized, individual pouches of its Lay’s and Doritos brands that measure out 75 calories worth of chips. General Mills and Procter & Gamble have followed Kraft’s 100-calorie target, with General Mills introducing Pop-Secret in bags that dole out 100 calories of popcorn and P&G’s Pringle brand entering the fray with 100-calorie versions of its Snack Stacks line, which offers chips in single-serve polypropylene cups.
Some brands are literally putting their packaging to work. Emerald of California, the snack nut line of Diamond Foods, launched last fall in rigid plastic resealable 10- and 12-ounce canisters, with lids that double as a one-third cup measure, or what’s considered a single-serving size of nuts.
Others are bringing in an element of fun. The primary appeal of Kellogg’s new Gripz line of snacks, tiny versions of its Cheez-It crackers and Chips Deluxe cookies, is the fact that they pour easily out of a “rip ‘n tip” pack—a foil tube that kids tear and then tip to dispense the snacks directly into their mouths. Moms probably buy into the package more for its low-cal appeal: each tube contains less than 130 calories.
Package structure is increasingly becoming an important focus for food marketers who are looking to help consumers curb their food intake, often by reducing the size of the packaging itself. It’s likely because they’ve recognized a peculiar aspect of consumer behavior: Sometimes people just can’t stop eating until they’ve finished a whole pouch, can or carton.
There are also other packaging tactics to consider. Take all the resealable packages on the market. While they’re often billed as convenience options, such multi-serve packages make “portionability” possible by offering a sturdy zipper or closure that maintains food freshness and withstands multiple openings by consumers who are accessing a single serving.
Dreyer’s new Dibs product is one such offer. The bite-sized shots of ice cream are packaged in a paperboard container that is topped with a sturdy plastic lid rather than the paperboard top typically found on ice cream cartons. Dreyer’s is not trying to dupe consumers by marketing the chocolate-coated ice cream bites as low-fat, but the resealability of the lid and the “26 pieces” message on the carton subtly sell the potential for portioning and self control.
There are also those who go a step further and actually do the thinking for consumers by wrapping individual servings of a product inside a multi-serve package. That’s the concept behind General Mills’ new Pillsbury Perfect Portions biscuits which offers five peel-open twin-pack pouches inside a bakery-style box.
“Our research shows that consumers in smaller households are ready for a more convenient form of refrigerated biscuits that enables them to enjoy just-baked biscuits, without waste,” says Mark Delahanty, marketing manager for the product at General Mills. The packaging allows people to bake just two biscuits at a time and refrigerate the rest of the dough to bake later.
Seattle Chocolates takes a similar, yet more stylish, approach. The inventive company launched Chick Chocolates in a funky 1-ounce box, hand-packed with three chocolates that are individually wrapped in colorful foil twists. The pocket-sized package works well as an impulse buy and sells itself on the idea of guilt-free chocolate indulgence, according to company CEO Jean Thompson, because it offers portion-controlled pieces. “We’re offering a portable, single-serve, “gift-for-me” treat,” she says.
Calling out calories on-pack
Beyond package structure, a less expensive strategy that still advances the idea of proper portioning is a straight graphic one. Blue Bell Creamery, in Brenham, Texas, came up with the idea of visually “ticking” each serving on one-pint cartons of its Crème de Carb ice cream, where each tick marks one-half cup. The goal was to help consumers understand what constitutes a single serving of ice cream.
“It’s a good idea, because this is a health-related product,” says Carl Breed of Blue Bell. “We thought these consumers would be more concerned with portion control.”
Though, with the low-carb fad waning, Breed says Blue Bell is no longer playing up that particular variety. But he also says the company is considering the graphic tactic for the rest of its extensive product line.
“We’ve been changing the packaging of our 50-plus flavors because of the whole trans-fat thing,” he says. “So we might as well consider adding it in.”
General Mills has taken a more complicated route, developing a complete information system for messages like calorie counts. The company calls out the number of calories per serving on the front packaging of various foods as part of its “Goodness Corner” icon information system, which, guided by FDA criteria, helps consumers understand the nutritional benefits of its products.
Getting a piece of the portion-controlled pie
Though the concept of portion-control packaging is just getting started, according to St. Joseph’s University’s Dr. Stanton, it is a legitimate marketing strategy for a segment of the market, with potential for it to generate significant revenues.
“It’s a win for the business because it’s value added, so we should be able to charge more for it,” he says, adding that packaging is the prime vehicle from which to deliver the portion-control message.
“Companies spend millions to advertise on television,” he says, “but the real prime time is not from 8 to 11, it’s when consumers are standing at the shelf with money in their pockets.”
His only caution? “The package better make it clear why you’re paying more to get less.” BP
The author, Pauline Tingas, is the Senior Editor of BRANDPACKAGING magazine.
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