Servings and Portions

Monday, March 5, 2012
Portions and Servings: More or Less

The Scoop

One of the more confusing elements of food labeling is understanding how much of a nutrient is contained in the unit of food you’re eating. Look on the back of your favorite premium ice cream brand. You can see the number of calories, how much fat and saturated fat is in there, the amount of cholesterol, sugar, then all the good stuff like protein and calcium. But consider this, those numbers refer to a mere half-cup serving, yet few of us scoop a half-cup of our favorite ice cream.

The Whole Enchilada

How about one of those packs of bakery muffins from the grocery store—the big ones with all those berries, and the sugar-crusted top? Again, look at the nutrition information on the side or bottom of the pack—not to mention the long list of ingredients—and you’ll see that all that information likely refers to half of a muffin. The same goes for yogurt drinks, microwaveable soup bowls, and some other singly packaged products. Many of those contain two or more servings, according to the nutrition facts label, but because they are packed as a single unit, we equate them with one serving.

What’s in Your Bowl?

The labels are meant to help us figure out appropriate portion sizes, but most of us don’t pour the suggested 3/4 cup of cereal into our bowls. As much as we might study a label to see how many calories, how much fat, and how much sugar is inside, we often gloss over the amount of food these numbers refer to. We might buy a cereal because it’s "only 110 calories a serving," yet proceed to pour freely from the box, somehow imagining that our big bowlful is what’s meant by a serving, and that we’re eating 110 calories (plus milk). In reality, we may be consuming two or three times that number. If we were actually to pour 3/4 cup of cereal into our big bowls, we’d be shocked at how little that is.

How Many Servings Per Portion?

If, as some argue, serving sizes are unrealistic, should new labels reflect larger portion sizes, so that the nutrition facts on the back of the cereal box refer to 1 1/2 cups or 2 cups? Should the nutrition facts on the back of a large bag of chips express information in terms of a half bag or even the whole bag, given that many people eat this way? Perhaps it should be expressed both in terms of whole package, number of intended servings and what each serving represents, which is a lot information to convey on a label.

Clearly, servings per container should be more prominently labeled, and in many cases nutrition facts changed to refer to a whole muffin, soup bowl, or yogurt beverage.

Front and Center

Will this kind of labeling change our eating habits? Possibly. We might be shocked to find out that eating a whole big bag of chips during the Super Bowl may amount to 1,000 calories. Perhaps, too, food companies will change the packaging of some of those two-serving foods once consumers begin to realize how many calories are in the whole muffin. 100-calorie packs are pretty popular, so building on this would be a start. Having that kind of information on the front of all food packages will help us make more informed decisions about what and how much we choose to eat.

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