In The Media – Sizing Up the Debate for Having Portion Sizes on Food Labelling
According to a recent BBC News article, a survey by Which? suggests that many consumers find it hard to follow recommended serving or portion sizes on food and beverage labelling, or feel the sizes provided are just unrealistic.
At NutriCalc, we feel that there isn’t a simple answer to this debate as there are so many variables to take into consideration.
For the benefit of readers who are new to the food industry, whilst putting a recommended serving size on food labelling is mandatory in countries such as the USA, in other countries such as the UK it’s entirely optional.
If you do provide a serving size for your food or beverage product sold in the UK, you’re not allowed to deliberately mislead customers with a size which is ‘unrealistic’. This means that the serving size should not be too large or too small, but based on what you would realistically expect an average adult to consume in one sitting.
This equates with the USA, where ‘by law, serving sizes must be based on the amount of food people typically consume, rather than how much they should consume’ (source: FDA.gov).
However, there are no UK government guidelines stating what a ‘realistic’ adult portion size is for different types of foods – although they do exist for children’s school meals.
So, in reality is the serving size always based on what quantity a typical person would eat in one sitting, or do some manufacturers base it on what they think a customer should eat to stay healthy?
If their product is high in saturated fat, sugar, or salt, and therefore equates to a high percentage of a customer’s daily reference intake values, it’s understandable that they might want to reduce the serving size to make the product appear healthier.
Likewise, if it’s a very healthy product with low reference intake values, they might want to increase the serving size to encourage the customer to eat more of their product.
There’s also the question of whether the serving size is based upon the product being eaten as part of a meal suggestion, or on its own as a snack. This could make a big difference to how much a person would typically eat.
In an example quoted from the Which? survey, a 225g supermarket pack of Halloumi cheese was labelled as seven servings (around 30g each), and the serving suggestion was as part of vegetable kebabs. Even as part of a meal, this quantity does seem rather low to us as most people would eat more than 30g in a sitting.
Looking at the nutrition labelling then, a 30g serving size provides 15% of your recommended reference intake for salt and 25% for saturated fats. Consuming twice as much as this (as we believe most people would do) would give 30% and 50% respectively, which wouldn’t look great on a food label either!
The whole idea of a recommended serving size is always going to be a compromise as there’s no ‘one serving size fits all’. Science and the official UK nutrition guidance tells us that men, women, and children all require different daily calorie intakes – and this varies at different ages.
There’s also the fact that everyone’s metabolism and level of daily physical activity is different, so some people can arguably eat a larger portion size which is still healthy for them.
The way we consume food has also changed a lot compared to say 30 years ago. The availability of food wherever we go, and in so many options ready for instant consumption has led to grazing and snacking through the day becoming commonplace, with less necessity to have ‘three square meals a day’.
Taking all these factors into consideration then, it could be argued that it would be better if we got rid of serving sizes altogether and consumers just used the mandatory per 100g / 100ml nutrition information on back of pack labelling.
This would, however, require them to either weigh or accurately estimate their own chosen serving size, to calculate the nutrition information.
It’s certainly food for thought.