Super-size it

by Wendy Gulley

The line at the concession stand for the local cinema megaplex was moving excruciatingly slowly. I was vainly hoping to buy some goodies before the previews started in my tiny booth they call a theater. As I inched closer, I discerned why it was taking my fellow moviegoers so long to make their purchases. The helpful young man behind the counter was wearing a button that says “Ask me about the SUPER COMBO.” But there was no need to ask, because he greeted each new customer with “Welcome to Loew’s. Would you like a Super Combo tonight?” Some customers didn’t miss a beat, but most customers were caught off guard for a few seconds before they decided to go ahead with their original order.

No one in line that night actually ordered the Super Combo (which consists of a very large bag of popcorn and a very large drink), despite his dogged persistence. But the helpful young man didn’t stop with just that question. When a customer went on to order a small or medium-sized drink or bag of popcorn, he immediately asked if s/he wanted the next largest size for only x cents more. I must have looked especially thirsty to him, because he asked me TWICE if I wanted to upgrade my drink to medium-size. “Look, I know it’s a bargain,” I said to him impatiently. “But the medium drink is too big for me to put my hand around!” He then gave me my small drink without further cajoling, and it fit in my hand just right as I raced back to the already darkened theater.

Fitting in my hand was one of the reasons I didn’t want a medium drink that night at the movies, despite its “better value”. The other reason is that I simply didn’t want to drink that much liquid! But recently I’m beginning to think that I am the only American that thinks smaller can sometimes be better.

The super combo costs $5.75, while a medium drink and medium popcorn total $6.24.

Size Matters

Perhaps it all started, innocently enough, with the “Big Gulp” 15 years ago. In addition to the ordinary small, medium, and large paper cups for fountain drinks, 7 Eleven Stores began offering gigantic cups that could hold 40 ounces of your favorite soda. For only pennies more, you could get twice as much Coke as a large cup would hold! Big Gulps were quite successful and remain so today, but does anyone actually ever finish all 40 ounces? Is it a bargain if you only drink 20 ounces before the ice melts and it’s too watery and warm to finish?

In the years since then, more and more everyday products are being packaged in bigger and bigger sizes. Ironically, this trend has happened at the same time that the size of the average American household is declining dramatically. Does a household of 2, 3, or 4 people really need to shop at BiggieMart to get giant boxes of cereal that could feed an army? But to get big sizes, you need not go to these special, buy-in-bulk stores that have sprung up like giant weeds in the past 10 years. At any ordinary supermarket, supersizes abound for any type of product. You can now buy a 64 oz. bottle of ketchup instead of the standard 20 oz. size, or a 24 oz. bottle of salad dressing instead of the standard 12 oz. size. Or buy a 45 oz. jar of Ragu sauce, instead of the usual 26 oz. For your cleaning needs, Dawn dishwashing liquid now comes in a 64 oz. bottle that is too big and heavy to conveniently squirt on your dishes. And Tide detergent now comes in a 200 oz. container (12.5 pounds!) that will give you a hernia to tip into your washing machine. But what a bargain. As you pant and heave with the Tide container for the next two years, try to focus on how you saved $2 with your smart shopping.

The trend towards abandoning standard sizes is a puzzling one. In the past few months I have unwittingly purchased: 1) a toothbrush that’s too fat for the built-in toothbrush holder in my bathroom; 2) paper towels that are too wide for the paper towel holder in my kitchen; and 3) soap that doesn’t fit my travel container. My contact lens solution, always a heavy bottle to take on trips, is now only available in a size that is yet a third heavier than before. Take a stroll down the toilet paper aisle in your local chain grocery store and you’ll see that 4 roll packages, the standard size for generations, are now in the minority. Bulky packages of 8, 9, and 12 rolls line the shelves. Perhaps you have been wondering why the sales of large vehicles (SUVs, minivans and pickups) now equal the sales of “standard” cars in the U.S.? Sure, family size is going down and studies show that SUVs put us at greater risk on the road. But we need supersize cars to hold our supersize groceries, not to mention our supersize butts (more on that later). That must be the reason for a couple I know from Indianapolis who has one child and TWO minivans.

Better Value, but at What Cost?

Back to food items, and fast food in particular. McDonalds and Burger King now offer “value meals”, which make it cheaper to get medium or large fries and a medium drink with your sandwich than to get small fries and a small drink. Or if this isn’t enough to fill your belly, just say “supersize it” and you’ll get supersize fries and a large drink for only 39¢ more.

Let’s look at some sample meals. If you want to eat a modest McDonald’s meal, you might order a basic cheeseburger, large fries, and a medium drink. There is no value meal in this case; you must purchase the items at their individual prices, which total $3.47. If however, you decide to splurge and get the “two cheeseburger value meal”, you’ll pay only $2.99 for TWO cheeseburgers, large fries, and a medium drink. That’s right, pay 48¢ less and you’ll get an extra cheeseburger. Or “supersize it” (two cheeseburgers, supersize fries, and a large drink) and pay $3.38, still 9 cents ahead of the one cheeseburger/large fries/medium drink meal.

Meanwhile, at Burger King, a similar meal of a cheeseburger, medium fries, and a medium drink will run you $3.97. But for the same price ($3.99) you can get a double whopper value meal, consisting of a double whopper, medium fries and a medium drink. Why eat that small cheeseburger, with only 380 calories and 19 grams of fat, when you can, for the same price, clog your arteries with the new supersized whopper, which has 870 calories and 56 grams of fat? If you add in the fries (21 grams of fat), you’ll have more than enough fat for your entire day, all accomplished in one meal for less than four dollars!

Of course, breakfast at these fine dining establishments offers bargains as well. At Burger King you can buy a biscuit sandwich and coffee for $2.38, or add hashbrowns to the meal and pay 20% less ($1.99). Why, you’d be a fool not to eat a heavy breakfast at these prices.

Given the Star Chamber’s highbrow readership, I’m sure many of you are smiling at this point, thinking to yourself: “I never eat at these burger places, so I won’t be enticed into eating bigger meals.” But a recent study comparing a typical (better than McDonald’s) restaurant on Long Island to a typical restaurant in London shows that portion sizes weigh about a pound on Long Island and half a pound or less on the other side of the Atlantic. And in addition to the huge portions, Long Island diners also get items such as a bread basket and complimentary appetizers.

Bigger Is Not Always Better

Next time you’re in a busy public place — at the mall, at the BiggieMart, at the Lard-Hut — try collecting some interesting data: what percentage of people you see around you are seriously overweight? I’ll save you the trouble: a lot.

Americans are the fattest people on earth, and they’re rapidly getting fatter. According to the Seattle Times (May 29, 1998) 54% of Americans are fatter than is healthy, and this percentage has grown by about a third in the past 20 years. 1 in 3 adults in this country is obese, as are a fifth of children; these rates have also risen dramatically in the past 10 to 20 years.

Medical researchers view Americans’ increasing obesity as nothing short of a big, fat epidemic. As well they should, since obese people face a 60% greater risk of death, especially from diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. The number of Americans who die annually of obesity-related diseases is 300,000. (For tobacco-related diseases the figure is 400,000.) $100 billion is the estimated annual cost of lost workdays and medical care for obesity-related illness in this country.

And what are we doing to fight this epidemic? Eating supersized portions of food, encouraged by restaurants and food manufacturers. The Big Mac and the Whopper are no longer the big kids on the fast food block. Now we have the Big King, the Double Whopper, the Bacon Double Cheeseburger, the Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese, and the soon-to-be-released-and-overhyped MBX (McDonald’s Big Extra). All at cheap prices.

Some Americans are undoubtedly eating healthier these days. Or trying to. But beware, healthy eaters, of two other food trends: bagels and lowfat foods. Many of today’s fresh-baked bagels pack 500 calories or more. And studies are now showing that people who eat lowfat foods often suffer from the “I deserve to indulge later” syndrome, consuming more calories in the end.

Americans could certainly improve their health by eating more fruits and vegetables, the natural nonfat foods. But only 22% of us eat the recommended five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day. If farmers could only grow those peas and carrots in supersizes, maybe people would eat them.

Keep your eyes out for more examples of supersized objects, bombarding us in every direction. The new Godzilla, the FleetCenter (47% of its seats would fall outside the physical confines of the old Boston Garden it replaces), the effects of Viagra (albeit short-lived), and finally– THIS ARTICLE.