Hadley Malcolm, USA TODAY 2:29 p.m. EDT April 25, 2016
After spending years trying to convince consumers to buy more of their famous-name products, now some of the biggest players in the food industry are trying to get people to eat less of them.
Burgers are shrinking, cookies are becoming thinner and package sizes are getting smaller.
In at least one case, a company is telling customers to cut back on its more indulgent foods. Mars, maker of M&Ms and Uncle Ben's rice, said earlier this month that it would start labeling some of its products to indicate that they should only be eaten occasionally, due to being higher in sugar, salt or fat.
Mars is the latest company to take this seemingly counterintuitive approach. A look at grocery aisles and restaurant menus shows how prevalent the trend has become toward products with leaner messaging.
• McDonald's announced last week it's testing new sizes for its iconic Big Mac, including a smaller "Mac Jr."
• Snack food maker Mondelez introduced "thin" Oreos last year — a smaller cookie, smaller package size and fewer calories per serving.
• Coke and Pepsi are finding a big audience for miniature soda cans, even as they continue to hawk two liter guzzlers. Starbucks temporarily sold frappuccinos in a mini size last summer.
Other changes nudge customers to make healthier choices on their own, such as posting calorie counts on menu boards. The Subway sandwich chain became the largest restaurant chain to start posting the health information earlier this month.
As customers become increasingly concerned with package labels and legislation starts mandating what food businesses must divulge — like calorie counts and foods with high levels of sodium — downsizing has become yet another tactic major companies are using to hedge against increasing pressure to cut calories and boost healthiness in processed foods.
"It has everything to do with survival," says Will Rosenzweig, dean and executive director of The Food Business School, which is part of the Culinary Institute of America. "We've just reached a point where you can’t ignore that if you’re on the wrong side of this health and climate thing, you’re going to be in a declining business."
More than a third of Americans are considered obese, according to research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). And major food manufacturers and brands have come under significant pressure in recent years from customers and watchdog groups alike to alter the makeup of their products in response to growing demand for less artificial, more humane and more nutritious food.
Rosenzweig and other branding experts were hard pressed to think of other examples of companies blatantly labeling products to tell customers to consume them less frequently. But the move by Mars could be a pre-emptive attempt to avoid the kind of scrutiny the alcohol and tobacco industries have faced, Rosenzweig says.
"You’ve got the precedent of what happened to the tobacco companies, where it showed for so many years they were basically obfuscating their health impacts and then faced tremendous scrutiny and fines," he says.
And that may be why Mars is taking it to the extreme, labeling about 5% of its global food products for occasional consumption. "To maintain the authentic nature of the recipe," Mars said in a company statement, some pasta sauces and its flavored rices are among foods that could be slapped with the "occasional" use label.
For now, it isn't saying exactly which products — but does confirm the labels won't be put on its core candy bar line, which includes such stalwarts as Milky Way and Snickers. Spokesman Craig Annis says customers already understand those items shouldn't be eaten all the time.
Mars' labeling decision is part of a global well-being initiative over the next five years that includes improving the nutritional content of its food and getting customers to cook more at home, even if that means they may not buy certain products as often.
"How can we help have a positive impact on people who consume our products?" Annis says. "Sometimes that requires some difficult decisions. Consumers are looking for brands and businesses that they can trust to provide them with a product that meets their high standards ... but also stands for something."
The strategies highlight how, in the modern food age, business growth and profitability are increasingly tied to the cultivation of a healthy brand image.
"To target growth, you have to be relevant," says Mary Zalla, global president of consumer brands at Landor, a strategic branding and design firm. "I don’t think there’s any food company that can ignore the impact and the growing relevance that consumers place on health with regard to food."
Health-centric messaging has become a vital weapon to how a company positions itself with the public, and ultimately, gets its products into Americans' mouths.
Offering a wider variety of options also helps buffer the possibility that a customer will leave for another brand.
McDonald's, which has sold various Big Mac sizes as part of limited time promotions in other countries for several years, is testing a larger "Grand Mac" in addition to the "Mac Jr." There are no reports yet over which is most popular.
"Some people want to enjoy a larger portion and some people wanted something smaller," says McDonald's spokeswoman Becca Hary. "It just is a way of responding to customers' needs."
But a chain like McDonald's, which has already ditched its "supersized" french fries, may see a smaller burger as a way to brush up its image. "They're trying to avoid criticism," says Michelle Greenwald, a marketing professor at Columbia Business School. And still, "I don’t think people who don’t eat fast food are now going to come in because they have a smaller size option."
Follow Hadley Malcolm on Twitter @hadleypdxdc.