Less is More

U.S. restaurants should offer European serving sizes

In the U.S., an average can of Coca-Cola (or at least the one in my fridge at home) contains 355 ml of soda. Cans in Spain (or at least the ones in my fridge here) hold only 200 ml. At home, Cold Stone Creamery’s “small” portions of ice cream are five ounces. In Spanish gelato shops, a 2.5 ounce scoop is the norm. By American standards, European food portions are tiny, but living abroad, I’ve come to see things in a different light. In reality, American portion sizes are huge, not to mention that they contribute to a national obesity epidemic and they flat-out waste food. The rest of the world’s food suppliers manage to provide reasonably-sized portions. Why can’t we?

In the U.S. today, the Food and Drug Administration sets the guidelines for the serving sizes as listed on nutrition labels—but it falls to restaurants and food companies to decide how small or large a portion to actually serve. Given this freedom, many food suppliers rely on “value marketing,” or try to convince a customer to buy more food for a slight increase in cost. For restaurants, the cost of offering more food is small, because the cost of ingredients themselves is little compared to the cost of labor. Through value marketing, not only does the restaurant net more money overall, but it also convinces the customer that he is getting a good deal and that he should return.

Unfortunately, in the last fifty years the U.S. has witnessed a value marketing arms race. Between 1977 and 1996, according to a study by UNC Chapel Hill, U.S. food portion sizes increased for all foods (except pizza) . At the same time, the U.S. has witnessed a nationwide outbreak of obesity.

As of 2006, when the Center for Disease Control conducted its most recent survey on obesity, in 46 of the country’s 50 states over a quarter of all citizens were obese. Offering smaller portion sizes would be a small but significant step in combating this staggeringly high number. Admittedly, obesity can be caused by many factors, but it ultimately boils down to a person consuming far more calories than he burns—a habit that super-sized portions feed. A 2005 study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior showed that portion size influences overall food intake as much as taste; that is, if served more, someone will eat more, regardless of how hungry he actually is. A person will even serve himself more out of a large container than out of a small one. Interestingly, a 2003 study in the journal Psychological Science shows that when served less food, a person can eat less and yet still feel equally satisfied.

The obesity epidemic, recent media attention generated by the bestselling book French Women Don’t Get Fat and the movie Supersize Me, and good common sense all indicate that American food suppliers need to rethink the idea of value marketing. Leading U.S. restaurant chains should re-focus their advertising and in-restaurant approach to emphasize not quantity but quality. In Europe, restaurants already do just that. McDonald’s portions in the U.S. are 1.28 times bigger, on average, than they are in France—but French restaurants offer “quality” in the form of refurbished spaces and locally diversified menus. Although McDonald’s serves large portions in the U.S., McDonald’s sales last year increased by 1.4% more in Europe than they did domestically. Consumers do like to think that they’re getting “a good deal,” but in modern times, sometimes value other factors—like whether food is tasty and healthy—more than portion size. The decision to abandon value marketing, in addition to promoting good health, can be economically sound.

If for health reasons or to avoid food waste consumers want smaller portion sizes (even at the same price), they have little means of communicating this to food suppliers. The easier way is simply to order the “normal” size and throw away the extra. Should restaurateurs be nervous about the potential negative monetary effects of introducing smaller sizes, perhaps public opinion polls could reveal eaters’ preferences. Since, according to a November 2006 Gallup Poll, 58% of Americans were trying to “lose weight,” there might be higher public support than imagined for petite portions.

Thanks to smaller portion sizes, European citizens eat healthy, “diet-sized” servings without feeling like they’re depriving themselves. Americans should be able to do the same. When food suppliers offer small, high-quality amounts of food with the right marketing scheme, it’s a win-win situation: customers drop weight, and restaurateurs pick up a profit.

Justine R. Lescroart ’09 is an English and American literature and language concentrator in Quincy House, and is currently studying abroad in Granada, Spain. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.