Consumers’ mixed signals push portion sizes

Don’t feel too bad about scarfing down that multi-patty cheeseburger or pizza ringed with mini hot dogs embedded in the crust. You can offset some of the damage by chasing it with a diminutive 7.5 ounce Coke or Sprite.

The food and beverage industry, it seems, is going in two directions these days.

Companies like Atlanta-based Coca-Cola are playing to health and obesity concerns by touting down-sized or healthier products.

Others adhere to a shock-and-awe strategy that relies on jaw-dropping amounts or combinations.

Health officials say the mixed directions reflect an industry struggling to serve consumers who give mixed signals themselves.

In surveys, consumers say they want more salads and lean cuts of meat. But when pondering a menu they more often than not order the thickest burger, most loaded baked potato and creamiest cheesecake, maybe with a diet soda to create balance.

According to a Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index released earlier this year, the national incidence of obesity was 27.7 percent in 2014. That was up from 27.1 percent in 2013 and 25.5 percent reported in 2008.

Health officials hope an FDA rule reguiring restaurants, vending machines and convenience stores to list calorie counts will help change the nation’s contradictory behavior.

They will have to wait, however. The requirement, part of the Affordable Care Act, was supposed to begin in December but was postponed one year by the FDA on Thursday.

Despite the delay, Georgia Restaurant Association Executive Director Karen Bremer said listing calories will have an effect.

“I know I say, ‘Why are these portions so large,” Bremer said. “People want to know what’s in their food, where it came from and how many calories are in it.”

Smaller cans

Listing calories, however, hasn’t always been enough. The beverage industry has listed calories on soda cans for years, but health officials continue to link the sector with the nation’s obesity epidemic.

In 2009, Coke introduced the 7.5-ounce mini-cans — as well as 8-ounce glass and aluminum bottles — to capture consumers who wanted to stick with the brand, but in smaller quantities than the standard 12-ounce can.

The strategy worked. While mini-cans represent a fraction of Coke’s overall carbonated sales, transactions are growing about 9 percent compared to 0.1 percent for the traditional 12-ounce can and 2-liter bottles that make up the brunt of sales.

The beverage giant late last year also introduced Coke Life, a reduced calorie drink sweetened with cane sugar and stevia leaf extract.

“When we follow the consumer, we win,” Sandy Douglas, president of Coca-Cola North America, said in May in a presentation to Goldman Sachs. “While it’s a work in progress, it’s a bullish work in progress.”

But for every mini-Coke can or hummus veggie wrap from the likes of Tropical Smoothie Cafe, there is a Pizza Hut “Hot Dog Bites Pizza” or Steak ‘n Shake “7X7 Burger.”

The “Hot Dog Bites Pizza” is a large one-topping pizza, featuring 28 hot dog bites baked into the crust. The “7X7 Burger” is a single sandwich consisting of seven stacked burgers and seven pieces of American cheese.

Jayne Hurley, senior nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the current size of dishes and drinks are a result of the “super-sizing” of meals popularized by McDonald’s at the turn of the century. The burger giant retired the term in 2004, but the philosophy behind the portion sizes stuck.

Mini-cans and sliders are the normal sizes people should have been consuming all along, she said.

“I think people will be astounded when they see how many calories are in what they are offered” when counts are listed on menu boards, she said.

Bigger bargains

Restaurants moved toward larger portions because national chains trained consumers to equate size with value, industry officials said. The brain registers bigger portions for an additional nominal fee as a bargain, encouraging diners to overeat.

“McDonald’s coined the ‘value meal’ concept,” Hurley said. “It was a value to your wallet. But it was no value to your waistline.”

While Coke acknowledges mini-cans are small part of the business, it’s an up-and-comer whose transactions are growing because it appeals to consumers who want to reduce but not eliminate sugary drinks from their diets.

That is giving the company hope in a category that has struggled over the past decade. Volume for carbonated drinks in North America — Coke’s largest market — hit its peak in the late 1990s. Since then, the numbers have been sliding as consumers switch to teas, coffee and water as alternatives.

Douglas said Coke has focused on mixing innovative packaging with generating revenue through a combination of price increases, stronger advertising and increasing transactions.

“Simply put, more consumers are enjoying our products more often, and are increasingly choosing smaller packages including our iconic contour bottle,” he said.