Tim Lince

A new study by researchers in Europe has concluded that plain packaging for food products may reduce an individual’s purchase intent, but could actually lead to increased consumption once a product is purchased or offered. These findings suggest that measures to reduce unhealthy food intake by introducing plain packaging could have “adverse effects”, with the researchers suggesting it is “critical” for further studies to be conducted to see if such regimes would be a viable or ill-advised strategy to combat obesity.

With worldwide obesity more than doubling since 1980, there has been a renewed call in recent years for legislative action to combat it. So-called ‘soda’ and ‘sugar’ taxes have already been implemented in countries such as Hungary and Mexico, and plain packaging on fast food has been touted as a possible next step. It seems surprising, then, that this is the first paper to specifically examine the intake of food products presented in plain packaging. The research was conducted by academics in Belgium and France, and published in the journal Food Quality & Preference. One of the researchers, Carolina Werle, associate professor of marketing at the Grenoble School of Management, told World Trademark Review that the study originated from a professional interest: “Part of my research focuses on the efficacy of obesity prevention strategies, and my co-authors and I thought it would be interesting to investigate the effects of plain packaging on food consumption because anti-smoking measures are sometimes transferred to other public policy issues.”

There were three separate studies conducted: the first looked at ‘purchase intent’ towards packets of M&Ms in both original and plain packaging (with calorie information removed on both); the second looked at food intake of M&Ms in both original and plain packaging; the third looked at food intake of M&Ms in original, plain and ‘low fat labelled’ original packaging. All three studies split the results by gender, and the 342 participants in total were business school students.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first study into purchase intent showed that participants exposed to the plain packaging product “had less positive attitudes toward the product and the brand” in comparison to those exposed to the product in the original packaging. This result mirrors similar studies conducted with tobacco products in original and plain packaging.

However, the two studies on actual food intake surprised the researchers. Participants were given bags of M&Ms, either in original or plain packaging, and given permission to eat from them while watching an unrelated video. The study found that male participants exposed to the plain packaging consumed more than those exposed to the original packaging (with intake in female participants remaining unaffected by the type of packaging). While described as “unwarranted and unexpected” when found in the first study, a second study (amongst a new set of participants) garnered similar results. The second study (which added the third variant of the product in original packaging labelled as ‘low fat’) also found that a ‘low fat’ label increases the food intake amongst the female participants. The intake results are below:

The study represents an interesting addition to the body of work emerging on the impact of plain packaging, with the researchers acknowledging that these latest results represent a startling departure from conventional wisdom: “At first sight, the current results sharply differ from those obtained in the smoking prevention literature, with exposure to plain pack of cigarettes reducing product appreciation and desire to smoke, and actual smoking overall. What is effective for preventing smoking may not necessarily be as effective for reducing food consumption. Even worse, the present findings suggest that, although plain food packaging may adversely impact purchase intentions, it may actually increase actual food consumption once the product bought or offered (at least among males).” One reason stated for the increased intake is that “deactivating the marketing components of an unhealthy snack packaging deactivates the inhibition system associated with it”, potentially highlighting the importance of branding in the fight against obesity.

Of course, further studies will need to be conducted to show a consistent trend of these results. Indeed, the researchers state the same thing, concluding: “We deem it critical that future research advances our understanding of whether plain food packaging represents a viable health prevention strategy for fighting overweight and obesity. What is clear at this stage is that both product developments and prevention strategies initially aimed at reducing unhealthy snack intake may possibly lead to adverse effects.”


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