When stay-at-home dad Steve Mulligan sets his family’s table, he looks to the nutrition facts panel for help. Carbohydrates, calories, and sugars all play into his diet decisions. But those numbers are based on one thing: serving size.
“We don’t normally use the serving size as a guideline just because it tends to be kind of confusing. Two-point-five this. Three-point-five that,” says Steve.
A growing number of health experts and advocacy groups agree with Steve, and are calling for the Food and Drug Administration to revise serving size regulations, which are based in part on eating behavior surveys from the 1970s and 80s.
“People are eating much larger portions than they used to, so these numbers don’t really reflect what people are typically consuming in one sitting,” says Registered Dietician Elisa Zied.
Zied says this leads many people to believe they’re consuming fewer calories, fat and sodium than they truly are.
In a recent survey, the Center For Science In The Public Interest compared serving sizes on labels to average consumption and came up with a list of their worst offenders, including canned aerosol non-stick cooking spray, soup, ice cream, and coffee creamer.
For example, a typical serving of cooking spray is just a fraction of a second, and is listed as having zero calories and zero fat. Bump that serving size up to 6 seconds, and you’re left with 50 calories and 6 grams of fat. And who eats the recommended ½ cup of ice cream, or 1 cup of canned soup?
“You might compare five different kinds of cereal and find that one serving on one package is one cup and another serving might be a half a cup. So that makes it really tricky, and people just don’t have the time, or typically don’t make the time, to do all the math,” says Zied.
Steve is one of those people. He says crunching those numbers can be mind boggling, not to mention too difficult to do on a daily basis.
Changing what’s on the nutrition facts panel isn’t easy, either. Former F.D.A official Peter Pitts says that’s how it should be.
“For the FDA to change anything on the food label is a long and arduous regulatory process. You need to find the science. You need to reach consensus with outside experts,” he says.
Pitts admits he’d like to see food labels evolve, but says it’s important to realize that they’re just one piece of the nutrition puzzle. He’d like to see increased education on healthy eating. In fact, Pitts and Zied agree that changing the serving size is a slippery slope.
“There’s potential harm in listing two ounces is a serving of potato chips, versus one ounce, because that might be a license in people’s eyes to actually consume more,” says Zied.
The F.D.A has been looking into revising existing food labels since 2005, but would not comment on the subject. Steve hopes that change is on the horizon.