For now, the Big Apple's ban on drink sizes bigger than 16 ounces is moot - a
judge's ruling put it on hold last month. But if it's upheld, the study findings
point to a major loophole, said lead author Brent Wilson, a psychology graduate
student at the University of California, San Diego. "The risk is that
regulations intended to reduce consumption could unintentionally increase
consumption," he said.
However, the research has limitations. The study didn't involve actual drinks
or an actual restaurant, and it didn't tackle the logistical issue of whether
customers are willing to carry two smaller cups or bottles to get the punch of
one big drink. Also, it didn't consider whether restaurants would think of the
"drink-bundling" idea, although they may do so now that the study has brought it
At issue are giant cups and bottles of sugary soft drinks, which pack a punch
of kilojoules. While some restaurant owners and residents cried foul, New York
City officials outlawed super-size drinks to combat the obesity epidemic.
"I'm trying to do what's right. I've got to defend my children and everybody
else and do what's right to save lives," said Mayor Michael Bloomberg, according
to CBS News.
Inspired by the ban, Wilson and his colleagues created an experiment to gauge
whether it might be possible for restaurants to get around the purpose of the
law, which is to get people to drink less sugary soda.
More money with an option
The researchers asked 100 college students, aged 18 to 39, to consider
choices on menus. One "unregulated" menu had these prices for sodas: R14,22 (16
ounces), R15,98 (24 ounces) and R17,77 (32 ounces). Those prices were all taken
from a McDonald's menu at the time of the study.
Another menu, with "bundled" options, offered a 16-ounce soda for R14,22, a
pair of 12-ounce drinks for R15,98, and a pair of 16-ounce drinks for 17,77. And
a third "no bundle" menu only offered a 16-ounce drink for R14,22.
The researchers found that the participants wanted to buy more drinks when
they had the choice of "bundling" them. When the participants only had a choice
of just one size, only 62% chose to buy a soda, compared to 84% of those who had
a choice of "bundled" options and 79% of those who faced the "unregulated"
Wilson said the study suggests that restaurants could make 70% more money
from drinks if they offered the bundled options instead of just 16-ounce drinks.
"The bundled options just felt like a better deal" to study participants, Wilson
It's not clear how much actual extra profit restaurants could make,
Wilson dismissed the prospect that his study was giving restaurants ideas
about how to bypass the super-size ban. "It's good for policymakers to know
about any unintended consequences and think about them now," he said.
Barbara Jean Rolls, chair of nutritional studies at Penn State University,
said the study findings are "provocative" but lack a real-life component because
they didn't involve an actual restaurant or actual drinks. (Wilson said that's
the next step for future research.)
"Human eating and drinking behaviour is very complex," Rolls said. "A lot of
studies indicate that what you say on paper isn't what you're going to do [in
real life]. I don't think just asking people on paper is going to tell us how
this will play out."
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