Research shows sharing-sized meals could have negative impact on health

A woman's hand reaching for french fries out of a man's hand
A woman’s hand reaching for french fries out of a man’s hand

Schulich School of Business Associate Professor Theodore J. Noseworthy has co-authored a new, soon-to-be-published study that shows that consumers underestimate the impact to their waistlines – and their health – when eating sharing-size meals and other food products.

Theodore J. Noseworthy
Theodore J. Noseworthy

The study, to be published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, explores whether the latest consumer fad for food sharing is negatively impacting health. Over the last decade, consumers have become accustomed to going to restaurants where the menu is designed to be shared by the entire table. More recently, brands such as M&M’s, Snickers and Skittles have released sharing-size options, and Hershey’s is advertising its products as ‘perfect for sharing.’

As the popularity of this trend increases, so too does the debate over how food sharing is impacting health. Mars-Wrigley, the company behind brands such as M&M’s and Skittles, suggests that food sharing can help with weight maintenance by facilitating portion control. However, critics are claiming that food sharing may be encouraging excessive caloric intake.

Authors Noseworthy, associate professor of marketing and a Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Entrepreneurial Innovation and the Public Good at York University’s Schulich School of Business, and Nükhet Taylor, an assistant professor in marketing management at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management, discovered that sharing food biases how people think about the consequences of their caloric intake – or put another way, people underestimate the fattening potential of shared food. This has important health consequences because these same people become prone to select more calorie-dense foods in subsequent food choices.

“People tend to regulate their caloric intake; we may pass on an ice cream sundae if we’ve already eaten a few french fries. It seems, however, that if we were to take those same fries from a shared plate, we tend to discount the consequences of eating them in our minds. Thus, there’s little to stop us from eating that sundae,” explains Noseworthy, scientific director of the NOESIS Innovation, Design, and Consumption Laboratory at Schulich.

The big question for Taylor was why this is happening. “When people eat from their own plates, they feel that they own the food on that plate. This facilitates the acceptance of the consequences of the calories they ingest, such as the possibility that these calories may lead to weight gain,” notes Taylor. “In contrast, shared consumption means eating from a communal resource. This can erode individual ownership, and lead people to underestimate the consequences of caloric intake.”

A woman's hand reaching for french fries out of a man's hand
Researchers discovered that sharing food biases how people think about the consequences of their caloric intake

To test how sharing was impacting people’s perceptions, the research team showed participants some of the most popularly shared food items such as french fries, M&M’s, and McNuggets. Some participants examined these food items on an individual plate to be consumed alone, whereas others examined them on a shared plate to be consumed with others.

Across five studies, generalized to different populations and different food items, researchers replicated the notion that food appears less fattening when it is shared. They also confirmed that a lack of ownership over the shared food is indeed responsible for this bias.

These findings represent a cautionary note for companies that strive to engage in responsible marketing, as well as for public policy makers.

“Obesity is an increasingly widespread epidemic in North America, and the most common reason outside of genetic factors is the overconsumption of food,” says Noseworthy. “Companies need to be aware of the potential negative impact they may be having on consumers’ health when they engage in marketing campaigns that emphasize food sharing.”

These results also have broader implications. One particularly interesting implication is about ownership.

“If sharing is biasing fattening judgments because of a lack of ownership over the food, the bigger question becomes: How can we increase consumers’ sense of ownership over what they consume?” says Taylor. “This would certainly be interesting from a public policy perspective, as it can help reduce the tendency to discount calories in general.”