Edible Portion-Control Markers: The Answer to Overeating, or a Marketing Goldmine?

You’d think it ironic that the worst food for you – junk food – seldom, if ever, comes packaged in portions. Or when it is, say, into 100-calorie packs? Calling that portion a “snack” would seem like an overstatement. Potato chips burn through 100 calories like a HUMMER burns through a gallon of gas: either way, you won’t be getting very far.

You could blame our overeating on the high price of pre-packaged and pore-portioned foods. More packaging, naturally, means a more expensive manufacturing process. I personally won’t ever purchase “100-Calorie” packs when I know I could purchase the full-size variant, and portion it out myself with some Ziploc bags.

Would I pay someone at a restaurant to cut my ribeye for me and box it up before I started eating? Nope. No, I wouldn’t.

However, coming home, and spending the time and effort to manage one’s own caloric intake is work most people don’t have the time, energy, or self-control to do. Snacks are largely a convenience food, and there’s nothing convenient about counting calories.

Luckily, the folks at Cornell University’s Food & Brand Lab have come up with their own solution: edible serving-size markers.

You heard me: edible.

Can you eat the bag on your 100-calorie snack? Didn’t think so. Dissatisfied, have you considered eating the bag from your 100-calorie snack? I’m pretty sure you have.

The study used Lay's Stax. Look familiar?

The study used Lay’s Stax. Look familiar?

How does it work? Well, their study used tubes of Lay’s “Stax” stackable potato chips.

Every 7 chips (a single serving), the next chip was dyed red. Interestingly enough, those in the test eating marked containers of chips not only ate 50% fewer chips (or 250 calories) than their peers, but moreover, were able to guess how many chips they consumed by a single chip. The other group? They underestimated how much they’d eaten by 13 chips.

How does it work? Well, the visual markers play off of the instinct some people have to use visual indication to mark their meal complete. It has nothing to do with actual hunger. Some folks will eat until they can see the bottom of their bowl, or until their plate’s dishwasher-clean and white.

Would you be more likely to buy snacks if they used portion-control markers? Many would say yes.

Think of this concept as making a shallower bowl, with the bottom higher than it usually is. Or gastric bypass for the potato chip can.

Which leads me to say this: the problem with American eating habits isn’t what we eat, but how we eat it.

There’s nothing wrong with having a bacon cheeseburger while you’re out with friends. Just don’t have a bacon cheeseburger for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If you’re starting to notice your eating habits mirror Morgan Spurlock’s in “Super-Size Me,” that may be a small hint to start cutting back some.

What are your feelings about the current size and portion-control products? Would you be interested in ones with edible serving-size markers? Do you think the concept could be applied to other foods and snacks than stackable-style chips? Also, how do you think this could impact marketers?

Image credit to theimpulsivebuy and TheDeliciousLife.

Eric Labanauskas

Eric is a data entry specialist and contributing writer for the QLP Blog Squad. He is a city boy with a country heart, with an appetite for anything chicken-fried. He has studied as an apprentice at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, performed across the country as Buddy Holly in "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story," and can tie a bow tie by himself without the aid of a mirror. 1950's rock 'n roll is his soundtrack, especially while on road-trips with his lovely girlfriend. Suffice it to say, he is also the owner of some good cocktail party stories from his many experiences. You can also connect with Eric on Google+.


  1. Jana Quinn

    Great points about self-control being a foundation of America’s overeating problem. Self-awareness is a big step toward exercising self-control; with the eat-while-working/watching-TV habits we humans love to engage in, people need outside cues to determine when we need to stop, especially since the brain is usually 30 minutes or so behind the stomach in telling us we’re full. A visual cue will increase that self-awareness for people to watch what they eat, and give them at least a head’s up that it’s time to close the chips and take a break.

    I think portion expectations are way out of control, and if food portions were better labeled, that would go a long way toward changing meal expectations and eating habits.

    • Eric

      It’s interesting in that this approach uses a subtle visual cue, a red chip. It doesn’t say “diet,” 100-calorie,” or anything that otherwise would connotate counting calories. Sure, it’s better for the human body, but I’d say the environment, too…all those pre-packaged, almost sample-sized, calorie-mindful packages have to add up in some landfill or another. Win-win.

  2. amy

    American’s portion sizes are out of control. I hate going to restaurants and ordering chicken parm or something and getting 2 giant chicken breasts. Knock 5 bucks off the price and only give me one, I’ll survive. I drive my parents nuts when we go out to dinner because I’m always ‘that’ annoying person who asks if there’s half orders available on menu items. Or else I will order off the kid’s menu or appetizer menu. No shame.

    I could go on and on about this topic (like that a proper serving of meat is 3-4 oz, the size of a deck of cards, but restaurants always boost about their 6 or 8 oz steaks). Drives me nuts!

    Before I go off on a rant, I’ll just end my comment here. Great post, Eric! I agree with you 100%!!

    • Eric

      Honestly seems as portion sizes increase here in America, our self-control consequently decreases. What I find more surprising are the portion sizes themselves…when you look back to a hamburger from the 1950’s, what constituted a meal then is something we’ve relegated to the dollar menu, almost as a snack-sized portion [for modern appetites].

      My best advice? Box it up. Only thing more awesome than one good meal? Two good meals. Not only does it save you calories (and from having to buy lunch the next day), but you may actually feel well enough at the end of your meal to go out, walk around, and burn some of those calories off!

    • Jeff Porretto

      3-4 oz??? Good lord I’d be hungry in an hour. LEAN meat is one of the better things to actually indulge on (at least according to weight watchers) because it keeps you fuller for longer. Indulging on the carbs and sugars is what gets people into trouble.

      For the record, a 12 oz steak is JUST right for me. But I’ve been known to go for the 22 oz… =]

      • Eric

        12 oz. sounds about right by me…someone was once kind enough to make me a porterhouse and my appetite punked-out on me WAY before I was even halfway done with the damn thing. Nothing less manly a guy can do than have to ask for a ‘doggie bag’ for his steak.

        Most the time, though, I’ll stick to my proteins and lay light on the starch. Keeps me feeling better throughout the day, especially if it’s a long one on the schedule.

        Isn’t there some joint in Texas with an ungodly huge steak eating challenge? You should go there and clean house, Porretto.

  3. Cybernetic SAM

    Hey! I thought this was ‘MERICA!? I can eat whatever I want! Haha just kidding, the only thing I have to disagree with is your statement about “American eating habits isn’t what we eat, but how we eat it.” I think that it has a lot to do with the what people can afford as well, when your kids are starving and it is 2 bucks for a happy meal or a bag chips vs. $1.65lb for fresh fruit and veggies and they don’t go very far, parents tend to get the junk food (because at least it is a full tummy). Not to mention once we have stopped nourishing our bodies they tend to slow down and become less motivated and less likely to make the right decision with eating habits. Everything else you say I totally agree with I think the American “entitlement mentality” has a lot to do with portion size as well. In fact most countries cannot wrap their minds around the portions we eat here. When all you grow up eating is large portions then to you it isn’t large, its normal. Just like I said in Mandy’s blog the other day, today’s society needs to have a little more discipline, and in this case self control. But these are skills that Americans find it very difficult to learn, and it will always be a problem in this country until we do something about it. EDUCATE! Great post! I could go on and on but it is only 9am and my brain hurts already! 🙂

    • Cybernetic SAM

      This is a perfect example of what I was trying to say, not to mention an AMAZING documentary! it is all free to watch, you have to make the choice to start learning.

      • Eric

        Think I summed it up a few minutes ago, but for the general blogging community, I’ll say it again (and gladly):

        It all boils down to accountability for ourselves and our bodies. McDonald’s shouldn’t be obligated to making nutritional information painfully clear, nor should they have to decrease their sizing because Joe Two-Big-Macs-and-a-Super-Sized-Fry can’t control himself. The fact our government has had to start stepping in and telling us and these companies what to do? Pathetic, really. Pretty soon we’ll have to ask Uncle Sam for the couple bucks when the ice cream truck rolls through the neighborhood.

  4. Rachel

    What a neat idea! I would totally buy chips with edible serving-size markers. It also could work with store-bought cookies that come in trays, like Oreos or Chips Ahoy. It’s too bad this wouldn’t work with bags of chips or candy or what-have-you. Anyway, if this helps people curb their serving sizes, then bring it on! I know my portion sizes are way too big, and if I just managed my servings better it would make a huge difference. Hopefully these edible serving-size markers catch on at various food companies.

    Thanks for the info, Eric! Really interesting stuff!

    • Eric

      Actually, cookies aren’t a bad idea at all to translate this idea over to. Come to think of it, any item in the sort of rank-and-file packaging could use such a system. I like that it’s a subtle, almost subliminal way of suggest serving sizes, and really, a suggestion. Hopefully it would make people at least think about their serving sizes, if not alter them once they’ve realized how much they are eating. As the study shows, the impact’s pretty significant! My fingers are crossed on this one, too, Rachel.

  5. Jen

    This is a really interesting post Eric! I agree with you 100% that it’s not about what we eat, but how we’re eating it (or how much). People make the conscious decision to stop at McDonalds for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. It’s not McDonalds problem if people are eating there every day (maybe multiple times per day). I agree portion sizes are completely ridiculous, but you make a great point and one I use my self, cut it half, box it up, and save it for later. Left overs are awesome for lunch the following day! And I’ve learned, if you’re dining out, box up half of your food before you dig in and it’s easier to eat less.

    I also really like the visual marker in the chips idea. I’ve tried to count while eating chips right out of the bag/container. NEWS FLASH: it doesn’t ever work, I always “lose count” lol. Great post Eric!

    • Eric

      Thanks, Jen! Ironically, today one of the headlines reads that NYC is trying to ban larger sizes of sugar-filled soft drinks. Needless to say, the Coca-Cola Corp. darn near had a stroke and wasn’t happy about the idea at all. Their response was along the same lines of the general concensus, here…people are able to make their own decisions, and self-control shouldn’t be something that has to be regulated by our government.

      Agreed. Leftovers rock. As a kid, I didn’t quite get it, but now, they’re honestly something I look forward to.

      And trying to count the chips you’ve had out of a bag? Never works. Some are broken, some are smaller than others, etc, etc.

      • Amanda

        Agreed! Government control is getting out of hand! You should be able to order an XL pop if you choose. Now if they have cups marked with a red line at every 8 oz…more power to them, LOL. =)

        • Eric

          Well, look at the way gas stations and fast food joints sell soda in the summer: usually 99 cents, or a buck, for whichever size you choose. You can absolutely get a smaller size, or if you’d like, you can get a ridiculous amount of soda.

          The best deal isn’t the healthiest choice, and people who think nutrition is directly proportionate to savings have got to be crazy! Sure, healthier food usually means paying a little more money, but in the end, it’s better for you, and – to me – almost always tastes better, too. You think an $8.99 steak is going to taste as good as the one from Gibson’s? Because, after all, it’s a better deal? Oh, 21-Century logic…


  6. Amanda

    Cool blog post Eric! I like this idea of color marking each serving. It would at least make people more aware of their portions, and give them more of an opportunity to make good choices while eating. =)

    • Eric

      Would also save people a bundle from having to buy the little, pre-portioned packs! Can’t go wrong with that!

  7. Mandy Kilinskis

    Sign me up for edible serving markers! I do my best to only eat serving sizes and reduce my portions, but any help that I can get is appreciated. 🙂

    • Eric

      Ditto! Especially with cookies, and especially Girl Scout cookies…those things go dangerously quickly when I’m not minding how many I’ve eaten! Still, though, I’d still probably eat half the damn box. Oh, well. Baby steps…let’s start out with Pringles and see how we all do from there.

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