Lightly Stuffing Ourselves

Feb. 8, 2022

Why "light" doesn't translate to "eat all you want."

Anyone remember SnackWell’s cookies?

For a brief time in the early ’90s, SnackWell’s, made by what was then the Nabisco division of Kraft Foods, seemed to be all anyone in the food industry could talk about. Their big deal was being fat-free. They were developed at the height of the anti-fat craze but before sugar and carbs were similarly villainized, meaning that their high amounts of both were overlooked.

Consumers went crazy. Kraft couldn’t make the stuff fast enough. There were reports of people following SnackWell’s trucks around.

Now SnackWell’s cookies are largely forgotten. (The brand was sold a couple of times and now rests with B&G Foods.) But I was reminded of them when I came across an account of a study purporting to show that, when it comes to helping people eat healthy, terms like “light” are overrated – even counterproductive.

The study, conducted by researchers from Maastricht University in Holland and Penn State University, was structured like most good psychology experiments: simple and a little devious. Subjects were given a lunch of snack tomatoes and penne pasta with pesto, oregano and basil. Some of them were told that the meal was “light” and “not designed to fill them up”; the others were told that the meal was created to be “filling.” Then they were allowed to eat as much as they wanted.

You can probably guess the result: The subjects who thought they were eating a light meal ate more and reported feeling less full than the others. It’s as though hearing that the food was “light” gave them permission to stuff themselves.

That’s pretty much the attitude that sank SnackWell’s. Consumers heard “no fat” and translated it as “I can eat all of these I want and never gain weight.” It eventually became painfully clear that this was not the case; calories still counted.

One of the researchers told HealthDay News that the Penn State/Maastricht study perhaps “warrants caution [in] the use of labels that denote the satiating power of food. Weight loss products or products labeled as light, maybe those could backfire and actually result in more intake."

Gee, from the point of view of a food marketer, that would be...delightful.

The FDA has strict regulations on what foods can and can’t use the terms “light” and “lite” in their labeling and marketing. Studies like this one convince me that that’s probably a good thing. For consumers, at least.

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