If you have ever read a nutrition facts label, you have probably seen the “serving size” listed right at the top. But do you know where that number comes from? (Hint, not an independent third party.) It’s actually the manufacturers themselves. Buy a big packaged muffin in the store and chances are the serving size is half a muffin. Check the cookies. The serving size is probably one or two. It’s not just junky foods either. I checked my package of alfalfa sprouts. One serving is supposedly 2/3 of the entire package. Now, I love my sprouts, but I’m lucky to get a small handful on a sandwich or salad.
So why is this an issue? Well, if you haven’t heard there’s an obesity epidemic going on in the United States. We don’t get enough exercise. We don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. We sit too much. We eat too much food we don’t bother to make ourselves. We eat a lot of stuff out of boxes and packages. Probably most important, many Americans don’t really know how to nourish ourselves and balance out our eating.
Weight management is multifaceted. But when it comes to the purpose of nutrition facts labels, it’s all about educating the consumer about how much food, calories, and nutrients are in a realistic serving. So recently, the FDA has said they need to look at what they can do to help people manage how much they eat and make sure they aren’t confused by the information provided.
Recently, Barbara O. Schneeman, director of the F.D.A. office that oversees nutrition labels was quoted in the New York Times on this topic as saying:
“We are actively looking at serving size and evaluating what steps we need to take. Ultimately, the purpose of nutrition labeling is to help consumers make healthier choices, make improvements in their diet, and we want to make sure we achieve that goal.”
Right now they are considering doing two things: bringing the serving size more in line with what people actually eat and then moving key information to the front of the package. The front-of-package initiative is part of the bigger issue of all the “spots, checks, marks” and other labels that food manufacturers use to give packaged foods a “health halo.” I think this is an important step for the FDA to get involved. The manufacturers’ front-of-package labeling is nothing more than snazzy marketing designed to make people put the package in the cart. If the FDA can oversee a single system for front of package labels that brings some key information to the front (like 120 calories per serving, 2.5 servings per container) this may help bring awareness to how much they are actually taking in if they consume half or the entire container.
The FDA says the front of package label would be voluntary for companies, but what they are considering is regulations that would prevent companies from promoting “benefits” on the front, while downplaying any “downsides” to the foods. I think this step is crucial. The more messages you have, the more potential for confusion. There’s only so much space on the package.
It’s not like this is the first time the FDA has tried to step in and tell companies that they should accurately portray the amount in the package on the nutrition label. Here’s a warning letter they issued back in 2004 (yep, about six years ago):
FDA also recognizes that there is a growing trend in the marketplace for jumbo or super-sized servings. When such products are intended to be consumed by one individual in one eating occasion, the nutrition information should be based on the entire contents of food in the container. We recognize that the current serving size regulations allow for such products to be sold as either one, or more than one, serving even if they are usually consumed at one time. FDA intends to re-evaluate this aspect of the serving size regulations. In the meantime, we encourage manufacturers to provide the most accurate and useful nutrition information to consumers by taking advantage of the flexibility in current regulations on serving sizes and label food packages as containing a single-serving if the entire contents of the package can reasonably be consumed at a single-eating occasion.
If FDA has addressed this in 2004 and warning letters to companies have not inspired any positive change in nutrition labels, then maybe it is high time they set tougher regulations. It does not appear that self-regulation is working.
I’m not so sure how changing the serving size standards to reflect what people actually eat would work because we eat too much now. How do you determine the “real” size people eat? It’s better to show the real size people should eat, but the problem with that is it depends on age, gender, weight, and amount of exercise. It’s hard to give a “one size” serving to fit all Americans.
Let’s take cereal. Toasted oats serving size is usually one cup. Other sugary cereals usually have a serving size of 3/4 cup. I don’t think it should be permissible for companies to choose 3/4 cup to make their products look nutritionally comparable to other cereals (calories and sugar look lower because the serving size is smaller). But what do you choose as the new standard? Even if “two cups” is more like what people actually eat, is it more than they should eat? Maybe for a 50-year-old overweight female, but maybe not for a 17-year-old high school track star. I would love to hear your comments below with good suggestions for how this would pan out in a realistic way.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which provides food and nutrition advice for anyone over age two, gives custom recommendations for servings of foods. Anyone can get a custom recommendation and track their intake for free online. So that’s a place to start. Educate yourself on what you should eat. Buy fewer packaged foods in general. Eat smaller portions. Only eat when you are hungry. All these things will help you in your “healthy weight” journey.
What do you think the FDA should do to educate consumers on food packages?