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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.
 
 
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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."

In some cases, marketers have figured out how to get us to order what we might not otherwise allow ourselves to eat. Take the Starbucks frappuccino. A morning coffee is normal. A morning milkshake is not. Drinking several cups of coffee a day is normal, but you might not allow yourself several milkshakes in a day. By presenting its frappuccinos as fancy coffee drinks, not desserts, Starbucks has its customers lining up to order "coffees" filled with sugar and topped with whipped cream and chocolate or caramel syrup starting early in the morning. A venti chocolate cookie crumble frappuccino has exactly 10 calories less than a Big Mac. You want fries with that?

To help encourage diners to eat more than ever, food manufacturers have discovered how to make all that food go down quick and easy. Former FDA administrator David Kessler calls it "adult baby food" in his book The End of Overeating. In one case, he cites meat that has marinade injected into it with hundreds of needles that tear up the connective tissue, quoting an industry executive who called the meat "pre-chewed." Another industry source described the food at Chili's by saying "All of this has been processed such that you can wolf it down fast... chopped up and made ultrapalatable." Kessler then weighs in, saying, "By eliminating the need to chew, modern food processing techniques allow us to eat faster."

Nowhere is this truer than in the case of beverages. When you eat a solid food, your body recognizes you've eaten and adjusts by eating less later. Not so when you drink your calories! When a corporation offers you a little more syrup and water in a larger cup for a little bit more money, they pocket the extra profit and you feel you are getting a great value -- but your body doesn't realize that it is supposed to eat fewer calories later because it just drank a Big Gulp. This is particularly troubling since added sugars in beverages make up 41 percent of added sugars in the diets of American kids and teens, who now eat more calories from added sugars than they should have for both added sugars and fats combined.

A third innovation from the 1970s that enters this equation is the invention of high-fructose corn syrup and the agricultural policies to make it cheap -- and cheaper than sugar. In the U.S., sugar has long enjoyed import quotas that keep the price artificially high. But agricultural subsidies make corn -- and high-fructose corn syrup -- cheap. By the early 1980s, the major soda companies had switched entirely from sugar to high-fructose corn syrup. Now that soda's main ingredient was cheaper than ever, it cost nearly nothing for restaurants and convenience stores to sell larger and larger sodas. Almost every extra penny paid for a larger-sized soda was pure profit.

Americans like to think of themselves as individuals who are capable of making their own choices. We don't need the government to tell us to drink less soda, right? But this is more a matter of the government telling corporations not to prey on human psychology and physiology to trick their customers into buying and drinking more soda than they want -- and more soda than is healthy for them. Particularly not when the result is a lifetime of illness and increased medical expenses, about half of which is shifted onto taxpayers who pay for Medicare, Medicaid and the VA.

On the other hand, nobody is banning consumers from drinking as much soda as they want. Just like in the old days before David Wallerstein's discovery of the "supersize," customers can still buy 32 ounces of soda if they want 32 ounces of soda. But in New York, that will involve ordering two sodas in two separate cups. Does that make you feel like a pig? Well, you're drinking 388 calories if the soda in your two cups is Coca-Cola. That's nearly 25 teaspoons of sugar: two and a half times what you should consume in a day. You can still have that much soda if you want it -- but maybe it's a good thing if ordering it makes you feel like a pig.

Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It..
 
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