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 The actual quantity of product per serving is based on outdated consumer surveys, before the era of super-sized meals, big-gulp drinks, and a-pint-at-a-sitting ice creams.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.