Edited by Kate Findley, The Great Courses Daily
Not only does candy taste delicious, but its bright colors intensify our craving. Peter M. Vishton, Ph.D., describes the correlation between food packaging, food appearance, and snacking behaviors.
How Visibility Drives Action
Are you looking for ways to prevent mindless snacking? The types of food containers you use can greatly influence eating behaviors. Specifically, whether the container is opaque or transparent sends signals to your subconscious that drive you to either eat more or less.
Studies by Jean Piaget, often described as the father of developmental psychology, reveal the connection between visibility and behavior. Piaget noticed that his infant son would often reach for a toy that he liked when it was placed in front of him. However, if Piaget covered the toy with a small cloth, his son would stop trying to get it.
The cloth was small and light, and it would have been easy for the child to remove the cloth and grab the toy. However, the child never reached for the toy, though he remained aware of the object.
The children in these studies still didn’t reach for a hidden object until they were much older. Even then, it’s always a challenge for children to initiate actions based on things that they can’t see. This remains true in adulthood.
Similarly, when snacks are placed out of sight, it’s not that your inner two-year-old is completely unaware of the snacks. What changes is your behavior. Your inner two-year-old no longer reaches for food that’s out-of-sight.
Food Containers and Eating Behaviors
Raji Srinivasan and her collaborators did a fascinating set of studies on how different types of food containers influence snacking behaviors. In one of the experiments, participants were given colorful, sugary cereal—Froot Loops™—to snack on while they watched TV.
For half of the participants, the fruity cereal was in a transparent container; for the other half, it was placed in an opaque container. Not surprisingly, the participants with the transparent container ate significantly more sugary snacks.
With the transparent container, they ate about 170 percent the amount that they ate from the opaque containers. When you can’t directly see the snack food, you will tend to unconsciously reach out and eat less.
What about eating Froot Loops directly from the box?
The box prevents you from seeing the food directly, but it has plenty of cues that attract your attention—and your hand. The box is colorful; it says “Froot Loops” in big, bright text. It even has pictures on the outside of the box showing the brightly colored cereal.
In Srinivasan’s experiments, the opaque containers were plainly colored. The point is that your subconscious eating system shouldn’t get a clear reminder that the food is there. If you do snack directly from the box, these experiments suggest that you would eat a lot.
In a separate experiment, these researchers found that M&M’S® candies exhibit the same pattern as the Froot Loops. If you can see the candies in a transparent container, you’re likely to eat about 158 percent of the amount you’d eat from an opaque container.
The researchers also found that the package didn’t need to be completely transparent to generate these effects. Even if the package had a transparent window on it, that was enough to spur the participants’ subconscious appetite processes to reach out and start snacking.
With Cookies, It’s Complicated
The data gets more complicated when the individual units of food are larger. When the snack food was cookies, the result went in the opposite direction. People ate about 28 percent less food from the transparent containers.
Somehow, seeing the cookies makes you eat less rather than more. Srinivasan and other researchers think that we’re able to more effectively monitor how much we’ve eaten if we can see that food—that is, if it’s served in a transparent container.
For other types of food, though, such as the Froot Loops and M&M’S, this monitoring effect is less important. If you have a pile of tiny candies from which you’ve taken a few, the pile will look almost identical.
In one more study, the same procedure was used with a different type of food: baby carrots. For the healthy vegetable snacks, the transparent packaging produced substantially less snacking. Participants only ate about half as many.
The researchers were surprised by this finding, but it’s actually in line with our inner two-year-old’s eating behaviors. Carrots don’t look as delicious as cookies and candies.
It’s not that carrots aren’t colorful, but many children with prior experiences with both carrots and candy don’t find the appearance of carrots as appealing. Hiding that appearance inside an opaque container ironically makes them more appealing.
What types of food containers are best when it comes to controlling your eating behaviors? For everything in this study, but cookies, opaque containers were best.
They promoted less eating of small, sugary snacks and more eating of healthy, if less appealing, foods. The transparent containers were only better with the large cookies, allowing study participants to monitor how much they ate.
Dr. Peter M. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his Ph.D. in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.