Presenting the exact same meal as snack food leaves you hungrier, a new study finds.
Pasta with Scallops, Capers and Grilled Scallions
Credit: Heidi's Bridge

Labeling the same exact food as a "snack" rather than a "meal" makes people more likely to eat more food later in the day, a new study by the University of Surrey found. "When we think about eating well, we often consider the nutritional content of food," says study co-author and Professor of Health Psychology Jane Ogden, "but our study shows that eating well is also about how food is labeled and presented."

Centering around a food that, admittedly, is hard to not eat as much of as possible no matter how it's labeled, the study randomly assigned a set amount of pasta to four different groups of women. Each group was given the same initial amount of pasta, which was either eaten standing up from a plastic pot with a plastic fork (as a snack), or sitting down at a table with a ceramic plate and metal fork.

One group of 20 women also had the "meal" style pasta labeled as a meal, while another had it labeled as a "snack," and the two different "snack" eating groups were also split by how that version was labeled. The key though, is that the type and amount of pasta were exactly the same; the only thing that changed was "the way it was framed."

After the initial eating period, the subjects took part in a taste test where they were asked to rate a series of snack foods and encouraged to eat however much they wanted. The purpose of this part wasn't actually to get rankings, but to see how much they'd eat, and whether the pasta presentation and labeling would consistently affect their subsequent hunger.

The answer? Yes. Controlling for the subjects' body mass index, previous meals, and history of dieting, the groups with more "snack"-framed food ate more afterward, with the snack-labeled, snack presented pasta eating the most at 50% more food overall. "Simply calling food a “snack” makes us think of it as less filling," Ogden says, which "makes us focus less while eating it, makes us more likely to forget we have eaten it," and changes the feeling of being full, all through changing only the perception of what is the same exact food.

She concludes that by labeling foods as a "snack" regardless of their energy content, food companies can encourage more eating, and calls for government restrictions on what foods can be labeled snacks, as well for employers to encourage "proper lunch breaks" to cut down on passive snacking. On a more individual level, though, she recommends treating meals as meals no matter how they're labeled, and "making space in our busy lives to sit down and eat it."