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BBC documentary series The Men Who Made Us Fat is a fascinating mix of health, marketing history and the law of unintended consequences that has affected the modern diet. One phrase struck me as being a quite interesting. Expandables was a term to use a category of food products that would be part of multi-pack or buy-one, get-one-free deals. The products couldn’t be economic substitutes for instance discounting one type of meat would have it substituted over another meat-type.

In the case of food products it is usually items that people graze on, so this usually ends up not being the healthiest foods. The idea of grazeable supersized foods came from the middle of the last century in Chicago. There David Wallerstein came up with the idea of supersizing popcorn servings. Wallerstein came up with a behavioural change experiment as business idea based on the insight of that people might want to buy and eat more popcorn, but were simply ashamed of buying two bags.

Wallerstein was successful in his experiment. Wallerstein was appointed by Ray Kroc to the board of McDonalds in 1968 and then rolled out larger servings in McDonalds restaurants. So in that respect one could consider Wallerstein the inventor of expandables.

Another McDonalds business person Max Cooper, who was franchisee is credited with inventing bundling – packaging a high margin drink and french fries with a low margin burger. What McDonald’s now call their ‘combo meals’ or ‘extra value meals’. This cemented the role of expandables in food sales.

Unfortunately, this fits in with an unfortunate evolutionary trait, that humans are hardwired to consume high energy foods. And if the consumer has paid for it, they will eat it. Expandables are considered to have driven obesity, (there is some statistical correlation in obesity levels that suggest correlation).

More information

Zoe Harcombe’s blog has a complete summary of the TV episode to put expandables in context.

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