Supersize portions ………….where did it begin?  Where will it end?


The second episode in BBC 2’s brilliant run of programmes on ‘The Men Who Made Us Fat’, looked at Supersizing, especially in the fast food market.

Many people assume (I was one of them) that Supersizing came about because of people’s greed, but whilst this plays a part, it’s about profit of course.

Supersizing began as long ago as 1967 where a cinema in Chicago decided to double the size of popcorn and charge more for it, without doubling the price.  For the consumer it was a saving on the price of two portions, and for the manufacturer, they made more profit as the most expensive part was the cardboard!

This idea was then tested in MacDonald’s where studies on consumer habits noted that customers were happy to buy a bigger portion rather than suffer the embarrassment of going back for seconds.  It was just as cheap to provide bigger portions of soda and fries, and the consumers where happy to pay a bit more for twice as much food whilst retaining their dignity. 

Having paid for the extra portions, it was shown that even if they were full, they people were loathe to leave it, as the clever design of crunch or fat, sweet and salt hit the pleasure sensors in the brain making unlikely they would want to stop eating.

The McDonalds model arrived here in the late 80’s with Wimpey which quickly developed the ‘counter service’ that we recognise now with fast food.  This speed of operating food increased the profits greatly.

Another pressure to supersize came from the packaging giants who promoted ‘up-selling’.  Soda drinks originally started in 7oz bottles in the 1970’s, compared to one monster size now available, the ‘Double Gulp’ – a soda drinks cup that holds two litres of coke, containing 50 teaspoons of sugar – the equivalent of two thirds of a man’s daily calories!!!!!

Supersize wasn’t limited to fast food outlets. Confectionary manufacturers saw an opportunity to ‘man up’ their chocolate bars which went from a modest ‘Finger of Fudge’ being ‘just enough to give your kids a treat’, to trucker sized ‘Yorkie bars’. Treats were the way to capture the children’s market, and advertising switched its attention to children giving endless reasons to have a treat. In 1985 Mars targeted adults with their Mars King Size 100g bar,  however as supersizing grew, pressure on the food and drink industry saw them pledging to reduce portions and sugar and King Sized Mars were phased out …… only to be replaced with  Duo bars, and supersized crisps bags! 

The standard size for crisps is 32.5g which is roughly 175 calories (some multi packs contain 25g per bag) but most bags sold now are in excess of 50g at around 263 calories.  In the big bags (150g) you will find around 750 calories!   Although these duo bars and large crisp bags were marketed for sharing, once the salt /sugar hits those pleasure circuits it is difficult to save some for later.  It was also discovered that having eaten these extra portions, people generally didn’t eat less dinner to compensate compounding weight gain.

Studies by Prof Anthony Sclafoni in 1974 found that if you fed rats on rat food they didn’t over-eat, but if they were fed on biscuits, sweets and junk food, they quickly ate more than they needed and the weight gain was just as swift, gaining weight as quickly as the very next day! This way of eating continued until they were obese. Rats like us are biologically programmed to find high energy food in case of famine, so it follows that the effects would be similar for us.

In 1996 Professor James was commissioned to carry out a study on obesity and children’s foods, but after a four hour meeting with 40 top executives from the Food and Drink Industry, interestingly the report was shelved!!!  Fast food giants and confectioners passed the buck saying it was up to the parents to take responsibility.

Another way of getting around the obesity problem was to blame ‘inactivity’, deeming children as ‘lazy’.  However Terry Wilkin – endocrinologist from Peninsula Medical School proved that the majority of children are no less active than 30 years ago and it was fatness that reduced activity rather than laziness.

Over 40 years later from when supersizing first began, we are seeing supermarkets using ‘multi-buy’ to discount cheap calorie rich food, encouraging us to fill our trolleys with more junk.

Where will it end?   The current medical bill for obesity in the States is $150 billion p.a., enough for them to consider taxation on junk food, following the trend of Denmark and France who already impose taxes on junk food.  Will taxing such foods stop people, or just increase the revenue to deal with it?

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