In what is said to be the first ever study of its kind, Jane Ogden, professor in Health Psychology, and researchers from the University of Surrey, UK, examined the impact of labeling food products as “snacks” or “meals.” 

During this investigation, 80 participants were asked to eat a pasta pot that was either labeled as a “snack” or a “meal.” Each pot was presented as a “snack” (eaten standing up from a plastic pot with a plastic fork) or a “meal” (seated at a table from a ceramic plate and metal fork). Once consumed, participants took part in an additional taste test of different foods (animal biscuits, hula hoops, M&Ms and mini cheddars.)

Researchers found that those who had eaten pasta labeled as a “snack” ate more at the taste test then when it had been labeled as a “meal.” This means that those who ate the “snack” standing up consumed 50% more than those who had eaten the pasta sitting down at a table. 

This unique set of results demonstrates that when a food is labeled as a snack rather than a meal consumption is higher, particularly when standing rather than sitting. Researchers attribute this to a combination of factors—when eating a snack, people are more easily distracted and may not be conscious of consumption. They also argue that memories for snacks and meals may be encoded differently in the subconscious, and that humans are unable to recall what they’ve eaten as a “snack.”

“With our lives getting busier, increasing numbers of people are eating on the go and consuming foods that are labeled as ‘snacks’ to sustain them,” says Ogden. “What we have found is that those who are consuming snacks are more likely to overeat, as they may not realize or even remember what they have eaten. To overcome this, we should call our food a meal and eat it as meal, helping make us more aware of what we are eating, so that we don’t overeat later on.”