Snack or meal: how something is labelled matters

Embedded in a story in the paper the other day, about the sugar content of meal deals (which was interesting in itself), there was an interesting bite size article about the effect of labelling foods as snacks or meals. The study, carried out at Surrey university, was simple, give people the same food but one group was presented with the food as a snack and the other were made to perceive the same food as a meal. A little later, the participants were given the opportunity to sample snacks freely from a buffet. The findings showed those who were guided to think of the food they are earlier as a snack ate more at the buffet than those who were signposted to feel like they had a meal. For more information on the study click here.

In some ways, that is no surprise. If you think that you ate a meal there is a greater chance that you won’t feel the need to snack later. If you only had a snack earlier it is easier to justify eating something else a little later, subconsciously as well as with reasoned decision making. This is important in two ways.

First, it shows us the importance of how we think about the food we eat. If we sit down and make eating an event, give it importance and be mindful about what we are eating, it helps us be more in control of the amount we eat and the range of foods we eat. This concept of the importance of mindful eating is supported by this study.

Second, food that we buy is often presented in a way that encourages us to think of it as a snack, as a quick bite, to eat on the go and therefore to eat it with less concious thought. This makes it easier to eat more than you may want to or intend to. Marketing and advertising works on a subliminal level. Sold to us and presented this way, ‘snacks’ that, if you were to consider the nutrient profile, would contribute significantly to daily intakes like a meal, particularly in those nutrients with an upper level that we should be, on average, staying below like calories, sugar, fat or salt. We should be asking that manufacturers consider evidence like this and use it to help define their packaging and labelling.

Considering the rest of the article, again points to ways that retailers could consider how they sell us food. The article reports on information released by Action on Sugar regarding the possible sugar content of meal deals. Obviously they have purposely picked the combos that have the highest sugar. If you choose an energy drink and a Mars Duo in addition to a sandwich with sweet chilli or bbq sauce it probably isn’t a surprise that the total sugar exceeds the recommended daily sugar intake of 7 teaspoons of sugar. But I think most of us would be surprised that this lunch could be more than three times the adult max average daily intake of added sugar, some of the possible meal deals were hitting 28-30 teaspoons of sugar.

Some people use these meal deals to get a cheap lunch most days. If it is hard to choose a meal deal that keeps fat, sugar or salt to a reasonable level then that really makes it hard to meet recommendations. A bit of consideration by retailers to make the best value meal deals below certain limits, so that one meal doesn’t take you over the maximum daily recommendation for salt, fat or sugar in one meal. Retailers can make these tasty and attractive, make us want to opt for those better meals. We should be encouraging our manufacturers to change our food environment. Provide us with better portion sizes and better nutrient profiles to go into their deals. Or else, as always, those with least cash and least time end up worse off.

These debates always have someone shouting ‘personal responsibility’, ‘if you want healthy then choose the water and museli bar’ ‘let the meal deals have as much choice as possible’…….’nanny state gone mad’……..

However, if we want to really improve public health then our food environment needs to shift. It is not about removing choice but about making the easy choice the better choice. Meal deals are the easy choice and the cheap choice, encouraging these to make better contribution to dietary intakes is a great idea. We should be making the provision of better food more profitable and better value. But the economics of food is the same as any other commodity. Sell more, make people want more even if they don’t want or need it. That approach has a real negative health impact and also increases food waste.

If we want to improve lifestyle related aspects of health and improve quality of life it needs to be everyone’s responsibility. So while we can argue that maintaining consumer choice in the meal deal…..if someone wants to consume 30 teaspoons of sugar in one hit they should be able to at the same price as the better meal deals… this really a fair argument? Do people realise how easy it is to eat so much sugar in a meal deal? If they knew would they choose to? If they knew would they consider that irresponsible of the manufacturers? But if a meal deal can taste good at a good price with less than 7 teaspoons of sugar or less than 6g of salt then people will hardly complain.

Choice doesn’t disappear but if the high sugar energy drink and the extra large chocolate bar isn’t part of the deal we have to seek out those choices, actively choose the products that are by their nutritional profile are occasional foods rather than everyday foods. Surely that is actually better choice.

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