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Plain food packaging increases unhealthy food consumption among men, new study finds

Published on
26 April 2016

Findings cast doubt on effectiveness of plain food packaging as strategy to tackle obesity

Plain food packaging increases snack consumption among men, a new study has found.


Werle C., Balbo L., Caldara C., Corneille O. (2016), Is plain food packaging plain wrong? Plain packaging increases unhealthy snack intake among males, Food Quality and Preference, 49, 168-175, read article

The research, led by Professor Carolina O.C. Werle from Grenoble Ecole de Management is the first ever to look at the impact of plain packaging on actual food consumption.

The article, published in Food Quality and Preference, was coauthored by Dr. Laurie Balbo of Montpellier Business School, Dr. Cindy Caldara of the University of Grenoble and Dr. Oliver Corneille of the Catholic University of Louvain, in Belgium.

The research also revealed that people estimate plainly packaged snacks to contain less calories than those in original branded packaging.

This suggests that while plain packaging may initially deter people from purchasing an unhealthy product, it may also increase actual food consumption among males once it has been bought.

Researchers carried out three studies in total. One hundred and sixty-six students participated in the first study, in which they were randomly allocated a packet of chocolate peanut sweets in either the original packaging or the plain packaging to look at how this influenced their perceptions about the brand.

This found that participants had less positive attitudes toward the product and the brand and were less willing to consume the product presented in the plain packaging. However, when chocolate peanut sweets were wrapped in plain packaging, participants estimated that they contained on average 100 fewer calories than those in the original, branded packaging.

The impact of plain packaging on actual food consumption

The second and third studies examined the impact of plain packaging on actual food consumption. Again, participants were randomly assigned to the original and plain packaging and upon arrival, they were placed in front of computers to watch a neutral video while tasting the product. Surprisingly in both studies, male participants exposed to the plain packaging actually ate significantly more sweets than those exposed to the original packaging.

Snack intake among female participants in study two remained unaffected by packaging, however the introduction of a low fat label in the third study increased snack intake among females.

Professor Carolina Werle, said: “Our research found that while plain packaging leads to less positive attitudes towards brand, it also leads to increased snack intake among males whereas low fat labels increased snack intake in females. One possibility for the boomerang effect on intake obtained here is that deactivating the marketing components of an unhealthy snack packaging deactivates the inhibition system associated with it.”

“In the context of the obesity epidemic, public policy makers have recently discussed the possibility of deactivating the marketing functions of packaging for unhealthy food through the use of plain packaging. This study casts doubt on whether plain food packaging does represent a viable obesity prevention strategy. It is worth noticing, however, that we only studied one type of plain pack (white) and one type of snack (M&M’s). Further research is needed to investigate the boundary conditions of these effects.”

She added: “At first sight, the current results also sharply differ from those obtained in the smoking prevention literature, with exposure to plain pack of cigarettes reducing product appreciation, desire to smoke, and actual smoking overall. Our results suggest that what is effective for preventing smoking may not necessarily be as effective for reducing food consumption.”

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