More than a decade has elapsed since we reported on consumers’ struggles with controlling portioning sizing as a primary hurdle to proper eating habits as well as a more general cause of being overweight or obese. At the time, consumers looked to companies for help, and consumer packaged goods food companies responded with an array of packaged 100-calorie “portion control” snacks. While this seemed like a practical solution at the time, the problem was not one of the package size but one of human behavior: the actual activity of regulating portion sizes proves significantly more challenging.
Today, the cultural saga continues. Reduced-portion sizes of food and beverage products (a significant growth segment of the restaurant industry) can be found in abundance, and yet consumers still struggle with controlling intake. What is different now is that consumer eating behavior is shifting profoundly from one of ceding diet control to third parties (e.g., consumer packaged goods manufacturers and restaurant/food service) to self-directed ambitions to regulate eating and drinking behaviors.
Many consumers simply perceive that they are more than capable of controlling portions. They want the ability to decide the sizes of the portions for themselves, rather than have it dictated for them by outside parties. Yet self-control remains a struggle: our Health & Wellness 2015 report finds that more than a quarter of consumers (27 percent) cite that one of the chief roadblocks to eating more healthfully when dining out is that portion sizing at the restaurant is “larger than what is healthy for me.”
As with any cultural shift in eating behavior, the answers as to why portion control has become more of a personal practice are complex and rooted in large-scale changes we are experiencing as we move from a traditional eating culture to a “modern” eating culture.
Our Culture of Food 2015: New Appetites, New Routines report sheds light on how eating culture is changing, with resulting impacts on dieting and eating practices.
In traditional eating culture:
In today’s modern eating culture:
Snacking behaviors themselves are having a profound impact on the entire realm of portion control. With half of all eating occasions defined as “snacks” by consumers, we can see that new definitions of “meals vs. snacks” have a direct impact on judgments about portions themselves. Despite fluid definitions around what constitutes a “snack,” consumers associate snacking with a few defining characteristics. In describing their eating and drinking, individuals divide their “food life” into meals and snacks, with little other terminology. Which side of the line a consumption occasion falls on is determined by a hierarchy of factors.
Size is the most salient factor that classifies an eating occasion as a snack. Even if “small eating” happens at a mealtime, it is often thought of as a stand-in until the next “large eating.” For “snacks,” those include:
As snacking has increased in popularity, portion control has become an intrinsic part of consumers’ naturally regulating their diet and eating according to personal health, wellness and culinary goals. Manufacturers, food retailers and marketers can stay in step with changing eating behaviors by innovating outside the rigid confines of a single eating occasion or terminology and creating products designed to serve multiple needs and people—a part of which includes new ways to “control portions.”
As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.