One Small Thing

One no-brainer trick to eat (and enjoy) a smaller piece of cake

Before you eat, don't look at the box the food came in.

Food packages featuring huge bowls of cereal with milk or mounds of chips with dip are meant to make food appear more mouthwatering. But all those extras on the box can actually make us eat more, say researchers at the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab.

That delicious-looking cake with chocolate frosting on the cake mix box? If you see it before you eat a slice of cake, you're more likely to eat extra 150 to 200 calories worth of cake, says John Brand, post-doctoral researcher and author of the study.

“Visual information is much more important than numerical information when it comes to serving size,” says Brand.

Courtesy of the Cornell Food and and Brand Lab
The picture of the icing on the cake causes people to overeat.

To understand how an image of icing on a cake influences how much food people eat, Brand asked 72 undergraduates to look at one of three cake boxes:

  • One box looked exactly as it would on the grocery shelves — a slice with icing
  • One box included a warning “frosting not included on the nutritional label”
  • One included a picture of cake with no icing on it

Then he told the participants to serve themselves some cake.

People who examined the box showing cake with icing sliced a larger piece of cake than those who looked at the modified boxes. Brand conducted a similar study with food service professionals and had the same result: people who saw the box with icing were more likely to serve a slice of cake that included 122 calories more than the recommended serving size.

Related: This may be the easiest, healthiest way to cut 205 calories a day

“If you remove all the supplementary ingredients—or the icing in this case—it correlates exactly with what you should eat,” Brand says. “People don’t separate them. If they think cake, they don’t think of cake without icing.”

The Cornell study is a reminder of the power of images on our unconscious eating behavior.

“This study made it more apparent that garnishes on the box make an impact,” says Julie Andrews, a registered dietitian at University of Wisconsin Health in Madison. “Having a giant piece of cake with the frosting on the front is a way to sell the frosting, too. It’s not helping people who want to eat better and who need a little assistance when it comes to nutrition."

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