This is a guest blog post by Carol Harvey, Director of food/nutrition labeling and product development at Palate Works.
Imagine a front-of-package nutrition graphic on a dessert that shows only 106 calories (ignore for now the non-compliant lack of rounding to 110) and contains real flour, sugar, eggs and oil. Similar desserts show at least twice the calories on their labels. It wouldn’t be surprising to see food comparison websites declare the one with “106 calories” as the “best” and “healthiest” dessert around (also ignore for now that calories are in no way a measure of healthfulness).
Although this gluten-free lemon bar from a small manufacturer doesn’t use front-of-pack nutrition labeling, if it did it would be even more misleading than having the info only on the back in the standard Nutrition Facts format where serving size, ingredients, etc. can all be seen and mentally processed together.
The problem? The 1-oz serving size (5 servings per container) used on this product is fine for a cookie or other low-moisture treat, but not for a bar, pie, cake or muffin. The smallest that one serving of this bar can be properly labeled is 40 g (FDA serving size for a brownie or trail bar), but it would more likely be classified as a pie, cobbler or fruit crisp… at 125 g. Then, instead of 5 (very small) servings per package, the nutrition would be calculated for 3 servings (brownie) or one serving (pie/crisp), and calories per serving would be either 180 or 530.
No matter how you slice it, there would be significantly more than 106 calories. So much for being “best,” “healthiest” or even lowest in calories. It’s like comparing the whole body weight of four people and only the leg weight of another. Guess who will appear lighter?
But just because something is in a container labeled “one serving” doesn’t mean eating the whole thing in one sitting is “recommended” or even sensible. This lemon bar is so sweet that the stated serving size of 1/5 a package is easily enough to satisfy the average sweet tooth (12 g sugars – about the amount in a trail bar twice the size).
So while the labeling is incorrect from a regulatory standpoint and useless for comparing with other food products in its category, those who heed the high “number of servings per package” and consume only one fifth of the bar will be doing themselves a favor. Of course, nothing is preventing the consumer from eating smaller portions of anything.
Since manufacturers don’t always get portion sizes right, the consumer should check whether it is consistent between products being compared. Don’t swallow a piece of data without understanding its relevance and comparability.
And FYI… this should be obvious, but all foods have fewer calories as the portion size shrinks.
Carol Harvey has been a nutrition labeling and product development consultant for over 15 years. She can be reached at palatemail [AT] yahoo [DOT] com.