Can Labelling Food A ‘Snack’ Lead To Weight Gain?

31st October 2017

By Harriet Mallinson | Published on October 31, 2017

Eating a few slices of bread or a tub of noodles and calling it a snack rather than a meal could lead to piling on the pounds, new research shows.

The act of labelling our food can make all the difference to our appetite, with ‘meals’ ending in satiation and ‘snacks’ resulting in increased consumption as we convince ourselves we’ve eaten less.

In a study carried out at University of Surrey, England, scientists examined the impact such descriptions can have on the human brain.

In the investigation, eighty participants were asked to eat a pasta pot which was either marked as a ‘snack‘ or a ‘meal.’ The ‘snack’ version was eaten from a plastic pot with a plastic fork while standing up and the ‘meal’ was taken seated at a table and eaten from a ceramic plate with a metal fork.


After this, participants were invited to take part in an additional taste test of different foods, including animal biscuits, hula hoops, M&M’s and mini cheddars.

Researchers found that those who had eaten pasta labelled as a ‘snack’ ate more during the taste test than when it had been labelled as a ‘meal.’ It was also noted that those who ate the ‘snack’ standing up consumed more (50% more total mass, sweet mass and total calories and 100 per cent more M&M’s) than those who had eaten the pasta sitting down at a table.


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This unique set of results demonstrate that when a food is branded a snack rather than a meal, consumption is higher, particularly when standing rather than sitting.

Scientists have attributed this to a combination of factors and believe that when eating a snack, we 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 our subconscious and that we are unable to recall what we have eaten as a mere ‘snack.’


weight gain


Jane Ogden, Professor in Health Psychology at the University of Surrey, who lead the study, said: “With our lives getting busier, increasing numbers of people are eating on the go and consuming foods labelled as ‘snacks’ to sustain them. What we have found is that those who are consuming these are more likely to over eat as they may not realise 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.”

Obesity is a growing problem in the United Kingdom with levels reported to have trebled in the last 30 years with 24.9% of people now deemed obese, the highest levels in Europe. It is estimated that £16bn a year is spent on the direct medical costs of diabetes and conditions related to being overweight or obese.