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Mars, Inc.’s Deceptive & Self-Congratulatory “Downsizing”

Candy bar manufacturer Mars, Inc. made news this week following an announcement that by the end of 2013, none of its candy bars would surpass the 250-calorie mark (a regular-sized Snickers bar currently clocks in at 280).

The general response by many in the health and nutrition community was a positive one. Certainly, taking away a 540-calorie king-size Snickers as an option is a good thing (after all, why buy the “regular” size if, for just a few more cents, you could have one almost twice as large, right?).

I, however, see this as nothing more than tried-and-true Big Food spin.

First of all, the replacement for king-size Snickers bars is the “2ToGo”, which contains two 220-calorie bars in one package. In other words, it is still possible to purchase a 440-calorie package of candy. Mars, Inc. says the package can be resealed so you can “save one for later.”

Ring any bells? It does to me. This sounds an awful lot like the 100-calorie snack pack “boom” in the early 2000s. As Michele Simon explains in her book Appetite for Profit:

“The food industry is very good at turning criticism into a marketing opportunity. In the case of 100-calorie packs, their ostensible purpose is to deter consumption of the entire box in a single sitting (as if tearing open consecutive packages wouldn’t occur to anyone). The food industry has magnanimously offered to save consumers from themselves by marketing higher-priced portion-control versions of highly processed foods.”

The “2ToGo” bars are, as made clear by the name, two candy bars. “Saving one for later” can mean having one after lunch and one after dinner. That is still 440 calories of junk food in a day via one purchase.

I am also dismayed that this is framed as Mars “downsizing” its products. I beg to differ. More accurately, they are no longer producing ridiculously large “single-serving” candy bars. Not surprisingly, the food industry wants to be congratulated for slaying the very monster it created.

I am also troubled that “the company says it wants to be an industry leader, helping its customers enjoy “responsible snacking.” Not only is this mired in all-too-familiar ‘personal responsibility’ rhetoric, it also takes the “calories above all else” approach. That is to say, that lower-calorie versions of nutritionally-empty foods are automatically awarded the “good choice” stamp.

I am certainly not in the “calorie denying” camp, but this obsession with calories is rarely about health. It too often overlooks food composition (regardless of caloric content, many Mars products still contain artificial dyes, hydrogenated oils, and other unhealthful ingredients) and is usually finagled into a way for Big Food to pat itself on the back for “offering solutions” to the damage it has inflicted.

I prefer to save my cheers and congratulations for public health advocates.

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8 Comments

  1. Mar said on February 18th, 2012

    A lot of food companies have reduced portions so that they don’t have to raise their prices as the costs of inputs have increased. This strategy is a spin doctor twofer.

  2. Andy Bellatti said on February 18th, 2012

    Very good point, Marc. Thank you for your comment.

  3. LeonRover said on February 18th, 2012

    Welcome to OxyMoron Territory.

    “responsible snacking”

    from the SpinDoctor Team that brought you

    “military intelligence”

  4. Andrew Wilder said on February 19th, 2012

    Last summer I picked up a Snickers bar and looked at the label — it had been several years since I had done so. I have to admit, I was actually surprised when I saw hydrogenated oils in the ingredients list. I had foolishly figured that by now they would have found a better ingredient to use. Just one more piece of evidence that junk food companies care only about profits.

    The more insidious problem, though, is when Snickers bars are advertised (whether expressed or implied) as a healthier snack (or worse, meal replacement) instead of the candy bar that they are.

  5. Andy Bellatti said on February 19th, 2012

    Andrew,

    The “healthier snack”/”meal replacement” framework is certainly problematic. The whole “Hungry? Grab A Snickers!” campaign alluded to the fact that one could be a meal.

    The insidious advertising you bring up also reminds me of the “healthy and school-approved” Snickers bar I was introduced to at the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics conference last year: http://smallbites.andybellatti.com/a-healthy-school-approved-snickers-bar/

  6. Lorne Webber said on February 19th, 2012

    Excellent Post, Andy, keep this up!

  7. Michael said on February 20th, 2012

    I read the headline and was interested, but then found that it’s mostly about market repositioning. Too bad. The food industry had an opportunity here to do something that was socially responsible, but chose not to. Splitting a 450 calorie candy bar in half and calling it “downsizing” is incredible!

  8. Claire said on February 28th, 2012

    I wonder though, if the tactic is somewhat useful. If a person is in the market for a Snicker’s bar, they’re going to get themselves a Snickers bar. Splitting a King Size into two portions miiiiight do some good. I’m thinking of research by Brian Wansink (I was just trying to remember his name, and voila! An image of the book is just to the right!) that shows how much these kinds of things can affect eating patterns.
    ps. I don’t mean to be an apologist. I always struggle with these things, whether to be militant about making people eat healthfully or being happy when Big Food makes small steps.

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