Food Labeled "Snack" Makes You Eat More Than the Same Food Labeled "Meal"

by Leah Groth ; Updated February 15, 2018

Could the key to weight loss be as simple as just rewording how you refer to the food you eat? According to new research, labeling a food item as a “snack” can actually make you eat more, while labeling that same food item as a “meal” makes us eat less. Fascinating, right?

“When we think about eating well, we often consider the nutritional content of food,” explained Jane Ogden, co-author and professor of health psychology at the University of Surrey, “but our study shows that eating well is also about how food is labeled and presented.”

The study served up a specific amount of pasta to four different groups of 20 women, all of whom ate it either standing up from a plastic pot with a plastic fork (as a snack) or sitting down at a table with a ceramic plate and metal fork (as a meal). One of the groups was served the “meal” labeled as a meal, another was served it labeled as a “snack.” Same for the snack groups: One was served it with the label of “snack,” and the other was served it labeled as a “meal.”

So all of these women were eating the exact same amount of pasta, it was just served and labeled differently. As Ogden put it, “snack-snack, snack-meal, meal-snack, meal-meal.”

Ten minutes after having their pasta portions, they were given a “taste test” and asked to rate a variety of snack foods (Hula Hoops, animal crackers, M&Ms and Mini Cheddars) and allowed to eat however much they wanted. Scientists wanted to see how much they would eat after consuming their pasta portions and if the presentation and/or labeling would influence their hunger.

Well, guess what? Those who consumed the “snack” pastas ate more food later on, with the “snack” eaters consuming a whopping 50 percent more overall — and 100 percent more M&Ms! So not only did the “snackers” eat more later on, but they were more likely to consume more calorie- and sugar-dense items.

Ogden believes there is a psychology in food labeling that triggers how full we feel. “Simply calling food a ‘snack’ makes us think of it as less filling, makes us focus less while eating it and makes us more likely to forget we have eaten it, and the feeling of being full is changed by the perception of what we have eaten,” she said.

What should we do with this information? Ogden hopes the government will be persuaded to crack down on the food industry’s labeling restrictions, employers will encourage their staffs to take proper lunch breaks and individuals will think more about what they are eating, “no matter how it’s labeled or packaged, as a meal.”

Remember, if you are trying to lose weight, 400 calories is 400 calories, no matter what you decide to label it as. This study is an important reminder to look at the calorie and nutrition content of everything you eat — regardless of how big or how small the portion size is, the time of the day you consume it or what the item is being marketed as. A small protein bar, large salad or fast-food cheeseburger may all have the same impact on your diet calorically (if not nutritionally), so instead of focusing on “meals,” just keep an overall tally on how much you are eating per day.

Snacking doesn’t have to derail your diet: Healthy, calorie- and portion-appropriate snacks eaten between meals can help you avoid eating too much at your next meal. Here are some healthy, 100-calorie protein snacks to keep you fueled up between meals!

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What Do YOU Think?

Can you see how labeling food as “a snack” could enable you to eat more later on? Is it the government’s responsibility to crack down on regulations involving food labels, as the authors of the study suggest? How do you avoid falling into this trap?

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About the Author

Leah Groth is a writer and editor currently based in Philadelphia. She has covered topics such as entertainment, parenting, health & wellness for xoJane, Babble, Radar, Fit Pregnancy, Mommy Nearest, Living Healthy and PopDust.