Why We Forget The Frosting When Counting Calories

Delicious-looking pictures on cake mix boxes may lead people to consume a lot more calories than they think they’re getting.

Think of the typical box of cake mix: the slice displayed on the package depicts a typical serving size for the cake alone, with the requisite nutritional information printed on the back. But to woo a shopper wheeling down the aisle, food manufacturers market their product covered in frosting and other confectionary flair to best present the cake in all its indulgently frosted glory.

That little marketing gimmick can be a real calorie trap for consumers. A new study, published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, shows cake advertisements drenched in frosting depict more than twice the number of calories compared to what’s listed on the nutritional label.

And what’s more, those images can stimulate even the most nutritionally conscious people to overeat.

“If we see a slice of cake smothered in frosting on the cake box, we think that is what is normal to serve and eat. But that’s not what is reflected in the serving size recommendation on the nutrition label,”

says John Brand, lead author and postdoctoral researcher of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University.

Subliminal Effects

Further, the deceptive powers of food packaging may not be limited to cake mix. Packaging can exaggerate the nutritional facts of the product in ways that flummox consumers and lead to overserving. Sauces on main dishes, dip alongside chips, and sprinkles on ice cream all might have similar subliminal effects.


Credit: Like_the_Grand_Canyon/Flickr

But there is some good news: a simple disclaimer stating that supplemental extras like frosting pictured on the box are not part of the nutritional information listed on the label can neutralize the image’s impact.

In a series of studies, Brand and Brian Wansink, professor of marketing, investigated packaging of 51 different dry cake mixes. A slice of cake as depicted on a typical box averaged 244 calories, about equal to the calories listed as a recommended serving. But when frosted, those servings topped 600 calories, a jump of 134 percent.

Serving Size

In a survey of female undergraduates, these overly caloric depictions caused the students to overestimate serving size. And it’s not just the average consumer who gets duped: Women in the food service industry, who were nutritionally conscious for a living, selected cake slices that had on average 122 more calories than what is recommended on the label.

When both groups were given a reminder that extra items like frosting are not included in the nutrition label serving size, the women’s estimation of an appropriate serving size was significantly reduced.

“Undoubtedly, companies don’t intend to deceive us when they include frosting in cake box depictions, but these seemingly small elements of packaging can have a huge difference,” Wansink says.

John Brand, Brian Wansink and Abby Cohen
Frosting on the cake: pictures on food packaging bias serving size
Public Health Nutrition DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1368980016000458