NEW YORK (MainStreet) – For years, diners at McDonald’s have been given the option to pay a little extra to “super-size” their meal. But as Americans pay more attention to their calorie intake, would they similarly embrace the option to “downsize” their portion size?
To answer that, researchers from various universities set up a study at a Panda Express restaurant in Durham, N.C., in which patrons were given the option of “downsizing” their side dishes to a smaller portion. The study found that 14% to 33% of customers took that option – and interestingly, they did so whether or not they got a 25-cent discount for going with the smaller portion.
The researchers conducted the experiment in hopes of finding an alternative to calorie counts, which have had mixed success in getting eaters to cut back. It appears they were successful.
“Overall, those who accepted smaller portions did not compensate by ordering more calories in their entrées, and the total calories served to them were, on average, reduced by more than 200,” researchers wrote in the study, published in the journal Health Affairs. “We also found that accepting the downsizing offer did not change the amount of uneaten food left at the end of the meal, so the calorie savings during purchasing translated into calorie savings during consumption.”
So could we see fast-food chains implementing this strategy? On paper, it makes a lot of sense: Chains from McDonald’s to KFC now offer various healthy menu items, and you have to think that big chains would be attracted to a plan that allows them to offer less food for the same amount of money. But there are reasons to believe “downsizing” might not be around the corner.
“It’s against the industry ethos of ‘Would you like a slice of apple pie with that?’” explains John Gordon of Pacific Management Consulting Group, which specializes in chain restaurants. He adds that the results may be skewed by the fact that the experiment was carried out in the relatively upscale locale of Durham, N.C., noting that healthy options tend not to fare as well in less wealthy areas.
And despite the survey results, there’s also the question of whether America is really yearning for smaller portions. While much is made of the fact that soft drink sizes have grown considerably over the past decades, Gordon says that the recession actually brought about a reduction in food portion sizes at cost-conscious quick-serve chains – and customers may rebel if the food gets any smaller.
“Through the Great Recession, there has been a tremendous amount of portion reduction and downsizing,” he says. “I think the wise heads in the industry think they have pushed that as far as they possibly can.”