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Can we downsize?

Americans have long asked for small portions; now they're here.

April 05, 2004|Alice Lesch Kelly | Special to The Times

Back in the 1970s, hamburgers were thin, soda bottles were small enough to drain in a few swigs and a candy bar was a bar and not a brick. These days, a bakery muffin can weigh in at half a pound, a plate of pasta can deliver a day's worth of calories and a chocolate-chip cookie can be bigger than your hand.

America's taste for big portions has led us down a dangerous path. Two-thirds of us are overweight or obese. So many Americans are getting so fat that obesity is beginning to compete with smoking as the leading contributor to death in the U.S.

Everything is bigger -- sandwiches, tubs of movie popcorn, fast-food cheeseburgers, even Oreos, which are available with twice as much stuffing as they had a generation ago. "We are now surrounded by huge food," says Barbara J. Rolls, a nutrition researcher at Penn State.

That may be changing. Several food manufacturers and restaurants are beginning to offer smaller portions for consumers who want alternatives to huge food. "The industry is responding to what consumers want," says Katharine Kim, spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Assn. "They respond quickly to customer demand."

Earlier this month, McDonald's, which has long been criticized by dietitians for pushing oversized hamburgers, fries and sodas, announced that it was phasing out its Super Size fries (7.1 ounces) and drink (42 ounces). McDonald's said the phase-out was an effort to simplify its menu and offer a balance of choices for customers.

The announcement pleased dietitians, although many also contend that portions at the fast-food chain are still too big. "The largest size of fries will now be over 6 ounces, which is still huge," says Lisa Young, a registered dietitian and adjunct assistant professor of nutrition at New York University.

Other companies are keeping their larger sizes but are offering new smaller ones as well. For example, the Coca-Cola Co. and Pepsi-Cola Co. now sell cola, diet cola and other carbonated beverages in approximately 8-ounce cans. (The smaller cans of Pepsi are available nationally, although some smaller stores don't carry them. Coke's mini cans are available in about half of the U.S. market. Expansion plans will depend on consumer demand.)

Although Pepsi won't divulge sales figures, company spokesman Dave DeCecco says the company has been "very pleased" with consumer response to the smaller cans.

In three to six months, Kraft Foods Inc., the nation's largest food manufacturer, will roll out 100-calorie single-serve packages of such snack foods as Oreos, Chips Ahoy, Cheese Nips and Wheat Thins.

The snacks, which will be labeled "Nabisco 100 calorie packs," will each have 100 calories, 3 grams or fewer of fat, no trans fat and no cholesterol. The Oreos, Chips Ahoy and Cheese Nips will be reformulated to meet these nutritional guidelines; for example, the Oreos will have no creme filling. The company is calling them "thin-crisp versions" of the original product, says Kraft spokeswoman Donna Sitkiewicz.

And Good Humor-Breyers Ice Cream has started selling mini ice cream pops, Popsicles, Fudgsicles, Klondike bars and ice cream sandwiches.

"They're designed for those with smaller appetites or anyone looking for just a couple of bites," says Lisa Piasecki, a Good Humor-Breyers spokeswoman.

The new offerings come on the heels of lawsuits alleging that some food products are unhealthful or have contributed to weight gain. Both Kraft Foods and McDonald's have been the target of legal actions. Kraft subsequently agreed to alter its Oreos to remove trans-fatty acids. A widely publicized suit against McDonald's was dismissed, but the company nonetheless announced that it would begin offering leaner McNuggets. The new, smaller-portioned products could help blunt criticism that food manufacturers are encouraging their customers to gorge themselves to the detriment of their health.

Regardless of the motivation behind the new offerings, if smaller servings sell well, more food manufacturers are expected to jump on the reduced-portion-size bandwagon. "I expect that we will see more of these types of products that provide consumers with an additional tool to manage their caloric intake," says Stephanie K. Childs, spokeswoman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, which represents the food, beverage and consumer products industry.

Food will be getting smaller in local sports stadiums too. Levy Restaurants, which provides food for concession stands at Staples Center, the Arena in Oakland, Dodger Stadium and Hollywood Park, is introducing a selection of smaller-sized food items in concession stands, private clubs and luxury suites. These "bitty bites" will include silver-dollar-sized Ahi tuna burgers, mini Chicago-style hot dogs and mini dessert plates.

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