FDA to Take On the “Serving Size” Hoax

The best kept secret in the food industry is its liberal use of the definition of a serving size. You’d think a serving size should reflect what the average person consumes, but it seems that many manufacturers are selling their products to smurfs, not humans. How else can you explain exactly 11 potato chips or half a cup of ice cream counting as a serving?

The FDA, it appears, is calling the bluff, and according to the New York Times,

is now looking at bringing serving sizes for foods like chips, cookies, breakfast cereals and ice cream into line with how Americans really eat. Combined with more prominent labeling, the result could be a greater sense of public caution about unhealthy foods. Read more…

The NY Times article also include four graphic examples of how wrong serving sizes distort people’s perception of the calories they will actually consume.

What you need to know:

The serving size is a regulated term required for presentation on the nutrition facts panel of packaged foods and beverages. The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) of the early 90′s mandated manufacturers to state the serving size of a product in both measurable amount (grams, fluid ounces, etc..) and consumer graspable terms (2 cookie, half a cup, 1 doughnut). The actual quantity of product per serving is based on outdated consumer surveys, before the era of super-sized meals, big-gulp drinks, and a-pint-at-a-sitting ice creams.

Many companies take advantage of this loophole to literally trick consumers into thinking they’ll be consuming less calories than what they actually do. Here’s a fun trick when you want to create a 100 calorie snack out of a 150 calorie serving – reduce the serving size from 3 to 2 cookies. Genius!

Most annoying are the single serving products that end up actually containing more than a single serving. For example – vending machine soft drinks that come in 20 fl oz bottle meant for a single person to consume, but actually composed of two and a half servings! Duane Reade’s potato chips single serve bag state that there are only 100 calories per serving. Careful examination shows a discrepancy where the serving is defined as 1 oz, but the bag is one an one third ounces, adding 34 more calories to the deal.

If the FDA does take action on this issue, it will be a godsend. We recently published a list of Ten fixes the FDA can require for nutrition labels, such as  getting rid of the silly health claims and stating amount of ADDED sugar. Out #1 request was for proper indication of serving sizes.

What to do at the supermarket:

It’s not enough to check the calorie count per serving, you also need to make sure the serving size suggested by the manufacturer is what you really intend to consume. Be on the lookout especially with snacks and soft drinks, where the empty calories can easily double or triple before you even stop for your first breath of air.

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  • Ken

    Agreed with the topic. Remember when 1 can of Pepsi contained 2 servings? FDA already fixed that, as they should have.

    But shouldn’t the gov’t spend equal time educating smaller portions?

    Example. Sleeve of Pringles may use small numbers for serving size. Average person may eat half a sleeve as their serving. Both situations are wrong. I would say the FDA is only addressing half the problem.

  • Carol

    I’m less sold on raising serving sizes just to help over-eaters with their math than to PUT SERVING SIZES IN BIG BOLD TYPE on the front and back of packages so everyone knows what the nutrition data refers to. If the average consumer ate closer to an NLEA (defined standard) serving, he/she probably wouldn’t be obese. Not that this is proof… but I almost always eat a “serving” of most foods (especially when it’s junk) and have never had a weight problem. Why force the sensible eaters to do the math?

  • Daniel

    @Carol
    You may want to reconsider that comment. Remember who the 2,500 kcal stranded is designed for. At a height of 5’10, living a sedentary lifestyle, you can sustain a man of 230lbs, for someone who’s very active 6-7 days a week (or a powerlifter/bodybuilder who is ether working out, or recovering) you would need to be an astronomic low of 95lb, how many 5’10 men you know that weigh 95lb? I hope none, if if you do, get a doctor to help them. They aren’t feeding Smurfs, they’re feeding lazy people, people who would never dream of leaving the couch, not active human beings. So you enjoy being anorexic and or lazy, I’ll be working out, I am 240lb, 5’10, 15% body fat, and eat no less than 3,500 kcal daily.