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The History of Supersizing: How We've Become a Nation Hooked on Bigger Is Better

NYC's recent ruling limiting the size of sugary drinks has spurred a lot of controversy. Is it stupid? Not if you know the history of supersizing.

New York Mayor Bloomberg's new rules limiting sodas and other sugary drinks sold in restaurants, movie theaters, sports arenas, food carts and delis to 16 ounces has spurred a national debate. Should government limit our serving sizes? Bloomberg's rules do not prevent a person from buying two, five or 10 16-ounce sodas and drinking them all in one sitting. They just prevent a restaurant from selling that much soda in one cup. Stupid rule? Not if you know the history of supersizing.

The idea can be traced back to a man named David Wallerstein, who ran movie theaters in the 1960s. He tried method after method to get his customers to buy more than one order of popcorn. Nothing worked. Then he realized why: people thought they would look like pigs if they bought two popcorns. So he tried increasing sales a different way, by offering a jumbo size popcorn. The trick worked. Popcorn sales went up.

Nowadays, this profit-boosting trick is the standard at any movie theater. Some theater chains require cashiers to inform every customer that they can have the next size up for an extra quarter or two. It's a tiny amount of money to pay for a larger size of soda or popcorn, but for the theater, those extra few cents are nearly all profit. The labor costs them the same to sell you a small popcorn or a large one. The added cost of a box or a cup plus some syrup and water, or some popcorn, salt and seasoning is minimal. And you as the customer perceive this as a great value.

Wallerstein's brilliant idea might have stayed in his theater chain, but in 1968, he became a director of McDonald's. In the 1970s, the economy was not on McDonald's' side, and customers were visiting the restaurants less and less and then only buying very little. Wallerstein convinced the chain to offer larger sizes of fries to boost sales -- and, of course, it worked. Incredibly, the large size of fries from the late 1970s is the small size of fries today! The same is true of other menu items. The largest soda in 1955 was a mere seven ounces, smaller than the 12-ounce child size offered today.

The economic crunch of the 1970s brought the chain another innovation as well: the value meal. Fries and sodas both have higher profit margins than burgers. Yet, while a penny-pinching diner might order a burger with no sides or drinks, nobody is going to come in for a meal and order a soda or fries without a burger. A McDonald's franchisee named Max Cooper pushed the company to sell value meals and the rest is history.

It hardly took a rocket scientist to observe McDonald's success and mimic it. Today supersizing and value meals are standard practice in a number of restaurants. In fact, even sit-down restaurants feel pressure to offer large servings, since customers complain and feel cheated if they do not. And once a larger portion is placed in front of a diner, he or she is more likely to eat more food -- especially if he or she is distracted by another activity.

Take the case of popcorn in movie theaters. Moviegoers in one study were given either medium or large-sized containers of five-day-old popcorn to eat as they watched a film. Those with large popcorns ate an average of 50 percent more. As Linda Bacon writes in Health at Every Size, "They didn't eat the popcorn because it tasted good (it was stale!), they ate it because of the external cue -- the container size."

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