Food companies struggle with portion control

Producers are trying to sell smaller packs to a nation of outsized appetites.

By MSN Money Partner Jun 25, 2014 3:44PM
Yoplait Greek 100-calorie cups (Courtesy of Yoplait via Facebook, Annie Gasparro and Julie Jargon, The Wall Street Journal

Question: Which is healthier: the 100-calorie pack of Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies or the regular-size bag?

Answer: It depends on how many bags you eat.

After years of ever-swelling portions, food-and-restaurant companies in the past decade have increasingly experimented with smaller plates and packages, targeting those consumers who now crave portion control in a nation long obsessed with getting more.

Food from Pringles potato crisps to Chobani Inc. Greek yogurt now comes in 100-calorie packs. PepsiCo (PEP) touted its 7.5-ounce "mini" cans of soda in a 60-second commercial during this year's Oscars. 

Starbucks (SBUX) sells mini cakes on a stick. McDonald's (MCD), long an icon of our supersize dietary dysfunction, serves smaller servings of desserts and french fries than it used to, and even the Cheesecake Factory (CAKE), a restaurant chain famous for its huge platters, offers small plates and a SkinnyLicious menu. (See how you score on a quiz to select the smarter choices among these packaged-food match-ups.)

But finding the right size for success has vexed companies and consumers. Sales of 100-calorie packs have actually fallen in the past two years, prompting companies to try other versions of portion control. For individual eaters, smaller portions can limit consumption, but some find that the benefits of right-sized packages are undone by outsize appetites.

Becky Shaver, 27 years old, said she often buys boxes of 100-calorie packs of snacks like popcorn. "The individual packaging makes it easier for me to stop eating," she said. "But sometimes I come home and find my husband got halfway through the box in a day."

For a long time, portions in the U.S. seemed to change in only one direction. The business logic was simple: the cost of adding more food or drink to a serving was less than gains from increased prices and marketing power. Convenience-store chain 7-Eleven started in 1980 selling Big Gulp cups of soda, in sizes up to a half gallon. 

McDonald's launched its supersize drinks and fries in 1993. Casual restaurant chains like DineEquity's (DIN) Applebee's and Darden Restaurants' (DRI) Olive Garden grew by peddling plates of food sized like heaping hub caps.

That urge to go large continues. McDonald's 550-calorie Big Mac, once the benchmark for fast-food excess, is dwarfed by rivals with nearly twice the calories, like Burger King's (BKW) Triple Whopper and Carl's Jr.'s Western X-tra Bacon Thickburger. Starbucks, home of the 20-ounce venti-size Frappuccino, in 2011 started selling 31-ounce trenta cups of its cold beverages.

But a decade ago, some food companies also began shrinking their offerings amid criticism from consumers and health advocates. The 2004 documentary "Super Size Me," in which filmmaker Morgan Spurlock got ill subsisting on McDonald's fare for a month, drew widespread attention and critical praise. McDonald's dropped its supersize portions weeks after the film's premiere, though it said the move was unrelated to the movie, which it criticized.

That year, Applebee's introduced its reduced-calorie Weight Watchers menu items, and Nabisco started selling 100 Calorie Packs for products like Ritz snack mix and Oreo cookies. "We were watching consumers buy sandwich bags, and put their cereal or chips or cookies in them, so, we figured, we could do that for them," said Todd Abraham, senior vice president for research, development and quality at Mondelez International (MDLZ), which owns Nabisco.

Nabisco's move sparked many imitators, including Kellogg's (K) Keebler cookies, Hostess Twinkies, Pop Secret popcorn, and the Milanos from Campbell Soup's (CPB) Pepperidge Farm.

Food companies can charge relatively more for portion-controlled products than for family-size ones. A 16-ounce box of Nabisco's Wheat Thins crackers, for example, sells for $3.50 on Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s website, while a box of 12 1-ounce bags costs $4.68.

That often makes smaller portions more profitable, executives and analysts say, though sometimes the higher packaging costs make it a wash.

The Greek yogurt industry, which has taken off in the U.S. since 2007, quickly picked up on the trend. General Mills' (GIS) Yoplait Greek 100-calorie cups, which came out in the summer of 2012, hit about $150 million in sales in the first year, making it the most successful Yoplait product launch in 20 years.

"It takes the guess work out of it for consumers, and it makes it easy for them to control their intake," said Carla Vernon, marketing director for Yoplait Greek.

When Yoplait and Dannon, owned by Danone, came out with their versions of Greek yogurt at 5.3 ounces, Chobani, which was selling 6-ounce cups, shrank the size of its standard portion to 5.3 ounces. Chobani, the top-selling brand of Greek yogurt, said consumers told the company it was confusing to compare nutrition information between different portion sizes. It also started this year selling its own 100-calorie cups. Chobani didn't lower the price of its individually sold yogurt cups to match their smaller sizes.

Companies sometimes have found it tricky to balance the desire for control with the impulse for indulgence. After several years of growth, sales of foods marketed as "100-calorie packs" started to decline significantly in 2012, according to market research firm Nielsen. Sales in the 52 weeks ended Feb. 15 fell 13 percent to $1.2 billion.

Executives say consumers seeking healthier snacks are increasingly avoiding altogether carbohydrate-heavy items like cookies and crackers that typically sell in 100-calorie packs. Meanwhile, those seeking a treat don't want to be so limited. So food companies are emphasizing smaller portions that don't overemphasize the calories.

"When people see that 100-calorie label, they think it will be a reformulated, bad-tasting version of what they want to eat," said Kellogg Chief Executive John Bryant. He said portion-control items that aren't marketed as 100-calorie packs are still growing in sales.

Mondelez, too, is emphasizing portions that aren't bound to the 100-calorie mark. The company predicts its individually wrapped snacks of 200 calories or less to account for at least 8 percent of its revenue by 2020, up from 6.5 percent of revenue in 2012.

In restaurants, shrinkage continues. The number of small plates and smaller-portion items on restaurant menus increased 32 percent from 2009 to this year, according to research firm Technomic Inc., although growth has slowed somewhat lately.

Cheesecake Factory introduced its SkinnyLicious menu in 2011, saying it was "redefining low-calorie flavor." The menu's hamburger, with a green salad, has 570 calories, compared with 1,100 for its standard "old fashioned" burger and salad.

TGI Friday's Inc. last year introduced a "taste & share" menu of smaller-size items, such as two Hibachi chicken skewers that contain 470 calories, including sides, and cost $6.49 at a Los Angeles restaurant, compared with the two entrée-size chicken skewers with sides that weigh in at 1,230 calories and cost $11.39.

Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says the current view of what constitutes "small" is skewed by the fact that what preceded the new portions were gigantic.

For instance, the Food and Drug Administration in the 1990s said that 8 ounces was the customary serving for a soft drink -- roughly the amount in the 7.5-ounce cans. "We shouldn't be calling them 'mini'; we should call them 'normal' and the other ones should be called 'obesity-promoting,' " Ms. Wootan said.

Still, Kristin Kirkpatrick, manager of wellness nutrition services for Cleveland Clinic's Center for Lifestyle Medicine, said the smaller portions ultimately are beneficial. "Sure, some people may still eat more than one portion," she said. "But you're much less likely to eat three or four portions when they are individually wrapped than if you have the whole bag in front of you."

More from The Wall Street Journal

Jun 25, 2014 5:58PM
Why not let consumers worry about portion sizes.  Get the government out of the food allocation business.  They are clueless about what people want and eat.  The governments whole food thought process is flawed and the science is politically motivated.
Jun 25, 2014 5:33PM
"After years of ever-swelling portions..."

It's true for the restaurants, but not for food packaging companies.  Spaghetti sauce used to come in 32 oz. jars. Now it's 24 oz.  16 oz. canned goods are now 14.5.  Even the article mentions a 7.5 oz item.  That's surely downsized from 8 oz.  Etc. Etc.
Someday the Dems will sell you a dozen eggs and the carton will have only eleven eggs.
Jun 26, 2014 12:20PM

I think most people over 55 remember a time when most people were slender and morbid obesity was a rare sight. When I was a kid, my mom bought me husky sized jeans, but when I see pictures of me at that age, I look absolutely slender compared to the kids I see today, waddling their way to the bus stop.

Consumers demanded convenience foods and they got it. They demanded more fast food joints and they got them. The rise in obesity precisely parallels these events. Government cannot regulate obesity; maybe we need a mascot like Smokey the Bear: "Only YOU can prevent a fat a$$".

Jun 26, 2014 1:00PM

Food Stamps are one of the most abused and wasteful social program this country has ever developed. A family of four receives more money monthly then my family of five spends a month on food. The amount paid out each month should be cut by at least one third. Purchases by food stamps should be (if not already) restricted to the following: Fresh/frozen non prepared meats & fish, fresh/frozen non prepared vegetables, deli meats/cheeses, canned goods, breads, non sweetened dairy, and non sweetened juices. The following should always be banned, and processes need to be in place where not already, to restrict: Soda, bottled water, power and energy drinks, sweetened juices, coffee, tea, ice cream, candy, energy bars, any pre-prepared meals or sandwiches, snacks/junk food, or any food that is mail ordered or shipped anywhere. If these rules would be followed, and recipients would learn how to shop and properly eat, no one would be hungry and we the taxpayers would save billions.

            Tobacco and alcohol should be banned from purchase by welfare funds. No cash should be allowed to be pulled off of any assistance cards except at banks and should be limited to a very low percentage of funds.

Jun 26, 2014 2:04PM

Prices NEVER go down...Dispel that theory quickly..

Portions and contents get lesser and prices go up, BOTH....That has been mentioned..

The same for bulk or weighed items like meat... The USDA, even "regraded meat".

Start checking the increase in pound prices, they may even go to ounces...Sounds cheaper.

Amazing what they can do with "packaging" also;  All to only fool the Consumer...period.

Meat another "con job" increase the "cheap fat content" or don't trim much of the fat and gristle  and leave the "bone in"....

Remember when they tried to bullsh!t us by going Metric, and then Liters for gas/fuel....??

Lot of Soda and Booze sold that way....

Jun 26, 2014 1:53PM

And then either Repukes or Dimwits, have to enter Politics into it...It's real easy to spot a Moron.

About the same as spotting a Fat Person...

Funny about Smokey/Fatty...."Only YOU can prevent a Fat A$$"...

We all had our Favorite Aunt, or Grandma, sometimes Mom that was a little "chunky"..

But most of our Dads "were not" Fat and Heavy....THEY WORKED..!!

And us kids PLAYED OUTSIDE, from daylight to dark...

Walked everywhere or RODE our Bikes, and we still ate like little pigs..

I didn't get a Gut on me until my late 40s or 50s....That was from being married forever, good beer or in my case...Good Booze...

Jun 26, 2014 11:01AM
I don't notice package sizes as I buy food in bulk by the pound and cook from scratch.
Jun 26, 2014 6:51AM
They clain to care about our "Health" yet they allow over 3,000 chemicals into our food as "additives" - this is where the real obesity and helth problems ar coming from - STOP putting chemicals into our food -
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