What works for cigarettes may not work for food: Plain packaging increases snacking

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

'Worldwide obesity has more than doubled since 1980 and in 2014, more than 1.9 billion adults were overweight,' say the researchers. Photo copyright: Istock / Katarzyna Bialasiewicz
'Worldwide obesity has more than doubled since 1980 and in 2014, more than 1.9 billion adults were overweight,' say the researchers. Photo copyright: Istock / Katarzyna Bialasiewicz

Related tags Nutrition

The use of plain packaging on unhealthy food as an obesity prevention measure may have the opposite effect by increasing snack intake among men, a study has found.

Already in place for cigarettes in Australia and in the pipeline for the UK, France and Ireland, packets that are devoid of the brand’s slogan, logo or colour have been found to reduce cravings and appreciation of cigarettes, leading to calls for it to be used for unhealthy ‘junk’ food suggested by public policy makers as one way to curb rising obesity rates.

But a study published in the journal Food Quality and Preference ​suggests such a policy applied to food may have an unintended ‘boomerang effect’ among some members of the population.

When given peanut M&Ms in a plain packet, the researchers found that men – but not women – tended to eat “significantly more.”

“What is effective for preventing smoking may not necessarily be as effective for reducing food consumption. Even worse, the present findings suggest that, although plain food packaging may adversely impact purchase intentions, it may actually increase actual food consumption once the product bought or offered (at least among males),”  ​the authors write.

“We deem it critical that future research advances our understanding of whether plain food packaging represents a viable health prevention strategy for fighting overweight and obesity.”

The researchers also found that plain packaging resulted in more negative attitudes towards the brand and the product as well as decreasing purchase intent prior to consumption. Following consumption, however, these negative attitudes disappeared.

The study

The study was conducted in three parts, the first of which was aimed at identifying the impact of plain packaging on consumers’ product evaluation and intention to eat the unhealthy product.

A total of 166 male and female participants received either a branded packet of peanut M&Ms or a white packet which bore the information “M&M’s – 45 g of milk chocolate covered peanuts.” Calorie information was erased for both. An online questionnaire revealed that those exposed to the plain packaging had lower intentions to consume, estimated a lower calorie content and also had less positive attitudes to the brand and product in general than those in the branded packet group.

In the second leg subjects tasted the product while watching an unrelated video, finding that men consumed “significantly more” ​M&Ms– 29.5 for men compared to 23.68 for women. However, a third experiment showed that women tended to eat more when shown a packaging bearing a low-fat claim but not for men.

“In sum, plain packaging increased snack intake among males whereas low fat label increased snack intake in females,”​ write the researchers.

The authors note that the study’s findings are limited by the fact that they only used one food type – chocolate confectionery – and call for more research to see if the findings still hold for other food types.

Plain old consumer confusion

Two years ago, it was revealed that confectionery giant Mars​ had been in correspondence with the UK’s Department of Health in 2012 on the subject of plain packaging, and warned it could have an adverse effect on public health.

“As well as depriving brand owners of their intellectual property rights without compensation, in the food and non-alcoholic beverages industries the introduction of such legislation would lead not only to consumer confusion (as to both origin and quality), but also to a significant increase of counterfeit products and hence negatively impact on consumers’ health and safety,”​ Mars wrote.


Source: Food Quality and Preference Journal 

First published online ahead of print 17 December 2015,  doi:10.1016/j.foodqual.2015.12.007

“Is plain food packaging plain wrong? Plain packaging increases unhealthy snack intake among males”

Authors:  Carolina O.C. Werle, ​Laurie Balbo, Cindy Caldara, ​and Olivier Corneille

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