On Tuesday I was contacted by Good Morning American to tape a segment on serving sizes. I shuffled my afternoon calendar and made my way over to Fairway Market to meet their crew. The news of the day involved a request by CSPI (often referred to as the food police) asking the FDA to revise serving sizes on certain food labels. I was interviewed in various aisles and went back to my office. I watched the show the next morning and later contacted the producer; I thought I had missed the nutrition segment. She apologized to me and explained the story “had been bumped for the peacock.” The peacock being the one who had escaped from the Central Park Zoo. Serving sizes would wait another day.
The segment did air yesterday but my gripping comments about soup and cooking spray were cut to about the length of time the label suggest you spray (or a ¼ second) so I’ll fill you in. CSPI feels that the labels for certain foods such as the aforementioned canned soup, cooking spray as well as ice cream and coffee creamer (not a particularly healthful foursome) underestimate the actual amount of these foods consumers use. It’s hard to argue that one-cup of soup, an actual cup not a restaurant mug is pretty teensy and measuring ¼ second as aerosol oil sprays suggest on the label is silly. I mean, “one-Mi” if we’re using the exact science of Mississippi counting. So yes, the labels have their faults but perhaps consumers of canned soup, ice cream, spray oil and coffee creamer have bigger fish to fry.
While the serving size may be a little off, all labels list “servings per container.” So to determine just how much of a sodium bomb your Chicken Noodle soup is you need to multiply the serving by a factor of 2 or 2.5. Are we unsure consumers can do this? CSPI is worried about people with hypertension, I am too. Should people who care about their blood pressure be eating canned soup? Or, are they reassured by the 790 milligrams if they eat the suggested 1-cup serving? I am all for pointing out confusing and misleading food packages but don’t see this as all that misleading.
CSPI suggests “the FDA should define serving sizes to reflect what consumers actually eat.” To me that’s opening up an extra large can of worms. With that reasoning is a serving size of frozen pizza one pie? A pint of ice cream? A liter of soda? CSPI found on a phone survey that most Americans do not consume 1 cup of soup, can we use what people actually eat to formulate guidelines? I don’t think so.
Food companies know what’s going on. Chips would be less attractive if calories per bag were listed. “One hundred calories per serving” sounds much better, too bad if there are 25 servings in the bag. So there’s a little fudging in on the part of the companies but who are we kidding when we down the bag of chips? So while I know most people don’t have a “teacup” of cold cereal, if you eat fewer packaged foods you’re in a better place for a host of reasons. And in case you are more interested in the peacock story, here it is.
Do you think serving sizes are “misleading”? Do you think they should, as CSPI requested, reflect what consumers actually eat? Do you eat any of the four foods mentioned?
Lauren, I love how you ended this with " And in case you are more interested in the Peacock story, here it is. " You are funny 🙂 I do think that serving sizes are misleading and I do believe that we are lured by 100 calorie bait 🙂 Thank you, Lauren. Great post.
Ayala, they don't say pretty as a peacock for no reason. I would say if you know bait is bait, it's up to you to take it or leave it.
When I read about this story I was actually most interested in the research that they did on serving sizes in the 70s when the labels were established. Turns out that we ate less back then…
I wonder what the effect would be if a bag of chips was labeled "2500 calories per bag" rather than 140 calories in approx 14 chips. I think it might be helpful. I don't really eat the 4 mentioned foods, maybe a can of soup in a serious pinch, or tortilla chips at a BBQ or Rosa Mexicana.
I do think that serving sizes are misleading. Who eats 1/4 cup of soup or 1/2 cup of cold cereal? While I do think that we should limit packaged foods, I think that having more reasonable serving sizes – along with the corresponding calories, saturated fats, sugar, sodium – might motivate more people to do so.
Very interesting post – definitely got me thinking! I don't eat a TON of packaged foods but when I do I pay attention to serving sizes and just do the math myself. I've personally never seen a problem doing it myself. I do believe serving sizes CAN be misleading and I've noticed on some products now they have two columns on their label – the amounts in a serving size and the amount for the entire product. I kind of like that method!
Cameo, my gut reaction is that the 2500 calories would scare people but I don't know that it would. It may not entice people the way the 100 cal per serving does. Stephanie, I see what you mean it's generally 1 cup of soup and 3/4 or 1 cup of cereal (a little too small). My concern is that increasing them give people permission to eat more. Serving isn't always same as portion. Madeline, thanks for stopping by I agree per serving and per package would be a good idea.
What really gets me about serving sizes is they almost never have correlations between the packages they are in. If the package is 240g the serving size is 115, and they say "approx two servings per can" or something silly like that. So in order to find out how many calories you are ACTUALLY using, you have to divide 240 by the 115, then multiply the calorie count by 2.0869 etc. (OK this is a silly example, but I'm pulling it out of thin air cause it happens all the time)
It is FRUSTRATING! either they should make the container 230g or change the serving size to 120g.. (or just list the nutritional content of the whole thing – especially when it is designed to be a single serving food – like a can of soda or a microwavable cup of soup)
Connie, I totally get it. Yes, it shouldn't be approximate and it should be something you can do in your head in the supermarket aisle sans calculator. I personally hate anything in grams, means nothing to me.
I think it is all in the way it's marketed. Like you said, 100 calories per serving sounds so much nicer.
Some people, regardless of what is on the package, still don't read it. This is why I'm constantly reviewing labels with clients.
Kristen you just made me think- the nicer/more attractive serving size may make us less attractive.
I agree that sometimes the serving size just isn't clearly listed. One example is when a bag of chips lists a serving as "1 oz" without the conversion to # of chips. I don't think anyone is putting those chips on food scale to measure one ounce. I think we could all cut down on serving sizes and I don't necessarily think we need a package to tell us how much we should eat. I have had clients who tell me they ate 4 cookies b/c that is what the box said was the serving size. So if the box said 10 cookies, would people eat 10?
Serving sizes are absolutely misleading. Who eats that recommended serving size? I do think that if a bag of chips was labeled 2400 calories then maybe people will pay more attention to what they are consuming.
I really like the idea of having both the total calories and some sort of "serving" breakdown. A quick glance at "140" calories on a chip bag definitely lessens the guilt factor — which in my opinion directly leads to overeating.
On a semi-related note… Lauren I know you're a fan of Sun Warrior — have you heard anything about them changing their scoop to a smaller size? And which size is correct? I've heard both that it was on purpose and that it was a mistake…?
One of my biggest complaints is the containers that list something like "2.5 servings per bottle" or whatever. Well, what is one supposed to do with that extra 0.5 serving then? I think the problem here is that none of these suggestions will really help the obesity problem in most of the country. There is really an education problem and a problem with health literacy and numeracy. Most people can't do the simple math of multiplying the # of calories per servings by the # of servings. Sad but true. I agree that if we just saw the calories for the whole package, we'd lose sight even more of how much we should be eating, so that's not the answer. In Europe they have floated the idea (maybe they even use it over there?) of having red, yellow, and green signs on packaged foods, and that's probably the best way for most people to gauge what they should be eating. Also if the government could start subsidizing actual fruits and vegetables instead of HFCS…but that's kind of a long shot.
YEAH GIRL! Unrealistic consumers!!!! Though their container sizes need a revamp! I'm looking at the commment above talking about that .5 serving in a bottle…. that should never happen! bottle sizes should reflect the serving size or be larger to hold multiple uses. that is, in a perfect world! we need to learn to make better choices as a whole and what the companies do wont matter b/c they will change to adapt to the consumers will/trends/needs… and right now the world is being greedy 😉
thanks for the fun topic to discuss! i think about this one a LOT!
Jessica, did not know about the sun warrior scoop, have to look into that.
i guess they can be but I think folks can work it out if they really want to 🙂
First, sorry your segment got put off by a peacock! Playing w/ my new kitchen scale the other day and noted that what I usually pour as a serving of cereal is really more like 11/2 servings. Are serving sizes not on par with what people usually eat? Absolutely! But, i agree w/ you that changing serving sizes to reflect what people really eat isn't the way to go. And, as Rebecca says, folks can work it out if the want!
Very interesting topic. I wholeheartedly agree that serving sizes are incredibly unrealistic for most products, but for some it's helpful – most people probably don't need to eat 3 cups of pasta in one sitting (unless they're highly active, of course), nor do they need 1,000 calories worth of trail mix (again: active people are an exception). But I think the expectations of what the average person will eat should be higher, but this won't happen because processed food is a huge money maker, and scaring consumers away with numbers isn't helping the big companies. I agree with your whole foods answer and think it's certainly the way to go. I've gotten to a point where I've reduced my processed food purchases down to simple things: broth, granola, canned tomatoes… but even these things I can make on my own, I know. I'm less concerned with serving sizes when I know what I'm eating is whole, unprocessed and from a good source.
Sofia, we're on the same page, wow- 3 packaged foods, you have me beat. I do say that your checkout basket should look like it comes from a farm not a factory, sounds as though yours does. No serving size issue with an apple.
Very interesting post and comments. I agree that it's best to avoid processed foods as much as possible. I do think that companies get away with trying to "trick" consumers. I also understand that upping the serving sizes could be a problem as many people just simply eat too much food. But the servings are so small on packaged foods simply to make the food more appealing. I don't eat a lot of processed foods and check labels mainly for saturated fat and sodium. And if you were to eat a "normal" amount of most processed foods, you are way over what's healthy… So maybe the processed food should be changed first to be made healthier and then the serving sizes could be changed. Yeah. Right.
I'm sorry your segment was cut but what an honor to be on that show in the first place! I am so in awe of your ability to speak on camera and I can tell you are a natural in the clip.
I rarely look at serving sizes any more because 99% of what I eat doesn't come from a box. Except maybe oatmeal or chocolate? But the Cinnamon Toast Crunch example in the clip? It's absurd…
I agree that in addition to serving sizes being misleading and, in many cases, unrealistic. The servings per package are very often inaccurate. What I find most egregiously misleading, though, are claims on the front of the package such as "8 grams of fiber; 100 calories per serving." All too often, then "positive" claim (ie the fiber) is for the whole package, and the calories per serving claim is for a fraction of that same package. (And yes, this all ignores the truism that if a food is packaged and advertised as "healthy," it probably isn't.)