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Serving Size Slyness

Quinn Phillips

August 10, 2011

People with diabetes often rely on nutrition labels for important information about the food they eat, or might eat — whether they are looking out for carbohydrate, calories, sodium, or anything else. These labels are regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which places strict limits on the claims manufacturers can make about packaged foods and what information a given food label must contain. So it can be especially frustrating when a food label appears misleading, with a smaller serving size than the product seems to deserve. Now, a survey shows just how far some serving sizes are from what people typically consume.

Commissioned by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition advocacy group, the survey polled 1,000 people nationwide about the amounts of certain packaged foods they would typically consume in a sitting. According to a post on the New York Times blog Well, some of the products with the biggest mismatch between listed and typical serving sizes include ice cream, canned soups, and nonstick cooking sprays. For example, 61% of respondents said they would eat a whole can of condensed Cambell’s Chicken Noodle soup, which officially contains 2.5 servings per can. While a single serving contains 890 milligrams of sodium — by no means a small number — the whole can contains 2,390 milligrams, just above the recommended daily limit of 2,300 milligrams for most healthy people. (Type 2 diabetes often coexists with high blood pressure, which may lead to a recommended daily limit closer to 1,500 milligrams.) Other foods with serving sizes that underestimate typical behavior include Häagen-Dazs ice cream, for which the serving size is about one quarter of the 14-ounce container; and PAM cooking spray, for which the serving size is a quarter-second spray. While the PAM label claims that a serving contains zero calories and zero grams of fat, a more typical six-second spray has 50 calories and six grams of fat.

According to the Well post, one reason the FDA’s mandated serving sizes are so small is that they are based in part on surveys conducted in the 1970’s, when portion sizes were typically smaller. Some critics, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest, are urging the FDA to update its labeling requirements to include larger serving sizes that more closely reflect present-day behavior. But should the FDA be encouraging consumers to think of larger portions as a serving? Some currently listed serving sizes, while small, are arguably quite reasonable: five Ritz Crackers, twelve Cool Ranch Doritos chips, three Oreo cookies.

At the very least, even foods with an improbably small serving size tend to be labeled accurately. Recent research shows that the listed calorie counts for many items at chain restaurants are inaccurate, undercounting by an average of 225 calories at sit-down restaurants and 134 calories at fast-food restaurants.

What do you think — should the FDA update serving sizes on nutrition labels to reflect typical behavior? Or should it try to figure out what a reasonable serving size for a food is, regardless of whether consumers typically eat that amount? Should it have different policies for foods that are typically eaten for sustenance, and foods that should be consumed in limited portions because they are treats or junk food? Have you ever made an error in your meal planning because of a misleading serving size on a nutrition label? Leave a comment below!



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