“Realistic” Servings on Food Labels

There has been much discussion about the proposed update to food labelling in the U.S. The change that is consistently mentioned? Serving size vs. portion size. These proposed new labels will include a more “realistic” serving size. The pop example is often cited – the nutrition information on the label of a 20 oz pop is based on an 8 oz serving; this suggests it will be shared between 2 adults and 1 child. Highly unlikely scenario – people usually drink the whole 20 oz. In light of this, it has been suggested that food label nutrition information should be based on a what is typically consumed.

I do not dispute that smaller serving sizes on a food label can make a product appear healthier than it is and thus can be a form of deception. However, I’m not convinced that using what people actually consume to establish what a “serving size” is will be beneficial. So, who decides what an appropriate serving should be? The consumer, the manufacturer or the government? Will healthy eating even factor into these decisions?

In my mind, the serving listed on the package is supposed to indicate how much you should eat. In the pop example, a label providing nutrition information for 20 oz implies that people should be drinking the full 20 oz pop, which I cannot condone. I agree that the serving sizes should be “realistic” with respect to portion size but how are we defining “realistic”? In a society plagued by obesity and in which people consistently overeat, I would be leery of any definition based solely on what people are actually eating.

If we look at the serving size from an overall health and caloric perspective, many of the current servings are perhaps not so inappropriate. I am aware, however, that the unhealthiest foods often have the greatest discrepancy between the serving size on the label and the amounts actually consumed.

So, should the label change or should the portion sizes change? Maybe we should really only eat 50 g of chips or ½ cup of ice cream?

Take ready-to-eat breakfast cereals as an example. This is one product where people often consume more than the serving indicated on the food label.

Scenario 1: Current Food Label Recommendations: 55 g of Vector cereal with 200 ml of 1% milk (311 Calories) plus 250 ml of orange juice (120 Calories) for a total of 431 Calories.

Scenario 2: Actual Portion (I measured what I would eat): 95 g of vector cereal with 325 ml of 1% milk (503.6 Calories) and 341 ml of juice (160 Calories). The total for scenario number 2 is 663.6 Calories.

When we look at it from this perspective, which is the most appropriate “serving” and what should the food labels read? I vote for scenario 1. If we really want to make a difference we should be looking at legislation that forces companies to supply their products in more appropriate portions. Why should you even be able to buy a 20 oz pop in a single serve format? We should also focus on educating the public on appropriate portion sizes.

Economically, the food industry is not going to support a recommendation that encourages less consumption and smaller portion sizes, but we should demand this in the interests of public health. Maybe we really should be encouraging 2 adults and a child to share the 20 oz pop rather than change the food label to provide nutrition information based on a 20 oz serving.


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