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"Serving size" shenanigans

I got into a discussion on an unrelated thread about serving sizes, and decided it deserved its own forum.

It's a pretty standard marketing trick to invent a "serving size" that's less - often far less - than the actual amount an average person would eat, in order to lower the sodium, calorie, and fat count "per serving."

I'm used to this from things like cans of soup (always listed as at least two servings per can), but I was looking at the nutrition label on a package of kielbasa the other day (don't ask me why) and was startled to realize they define one serving as 2 oz! Yeah maybe, if you're using kielbasa as a condiment!

What other egregious examples of minimizing serving size to make something look more healthful than it is have you seen?

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  1. You're not the only one questioning this... so is the FDA!

    2 Replies
    1. re: truman

      Interesting article. But it says that the "serving size" is determined by the FDA, not the food producers, and is based on consumer surveys done in the 1970s and '80s. That does not make sense to me - I was around in the '70s and '80s, and while people may not have "super-sized" things to quite the extent they do today, even back then no one considered 2 oz to be a standard serving of kielbasa.

      Plus, when I was looking at the package of kielbasa in the market, I also picked up another brand, which looked worse nutritionally until I realized their serving size was 3 oz, not 2! So much for producers getting their serving sizes from the FDA.

      1. re: truman

        Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me on NPR did a hilarious segment on this last weekend.

      2. Frozen pot pies--obviously a single serving, yet nutrition labels note that the pot pie has *2* servings!

        1. in order to standardize, they often list products with 1 oz servings, not to fool the consumer, to to make comparisons easier

          3 Replies
            1. re: thew

              But there is no such standardization! Look at the example I gave to start this - two brands of kielbasa, one says a serving is 2 oz, the other 3 oz. Besides, the issue is that they state this small quantity is the serving size when they know perfectly well it's not.

              Frankly, I'd be happy if everything showed the nutritional information per ounce - I have no trouble doing basic multiplication. As long as they don't also say that 1 oz is a standard serving when it's not.

              1. re: thew

                I know that Federal or State rules were put into place to standardize cost per oz (or whatever the food item is weighed in) in order to let consumer see which is the better buy across different sized packages of the same food. Maybe you are getting that twisted up with standard serving sizes?

              2. Dry cereal. Good Lord. I have never met someone for whom 1/2 cup of cereal constitutes a "bowl."

                The best I ever saw, though, were these giant dill pickles (several inches long), sold individually vac-packed in brine.
                The serving size, according to the package? "1/5 pickle."
                And one serving still accounted for something like 40% of the RDI for sodium.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Whats_For_Dinner

                  The exception, of course, being Grape-Nuts or a particularly dense and chewy granola.

                2. I think of the serving size as being based on the food pyramid, you know so much protein, carbs, fruits and veggies a day for a healthy diet (of course based on one western idea of what a healthy diet is). A fruit serving may be half a cup and you should have 3 or 4 a day. A protein serving may be 3 oz and you should have 2-3 a day. With the obesity problem in America (I am part of it), what we want to eat has to be brought into better balance with what we need to eat. I agree the serving sizes on packaging are useless.

                  1. Muffins - sometimes 3 or 4 servings per... seriously?

                    Cinnamon Rolls - 4 servings? i've never quartered anything and been happy with one... unless someone else snatched the other three, and then someone was getting a beating...

                    Olives - 1 1/2? have you ever cut an olive in half?

                    Pickles - 3/4 spear

                    Ramen - 1/2 block?

                    Potato Chips - 3 servings to one of those larger snack bags...

                    Individual Plastic Soda bottles - 2.5 servings... i know most people know this, but i think it would be better just to label the whole bottle... it's 250 calories, and maybe if people saw that whole number, they'd think twice

                    1. The best thing would to require the nutritional label to cover the content of the entire package. This would show items that are currently hidden by small serving sizes and rounding errors -- .49 is reported as 0.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: NVJims

                        to a certain extent i agree; however, it might prove less useful and be even more irrelevant (and i mean to the consumer who has difficulty now, and i use this term loosely) for products that have tiny servings but lots in a package, i.e. a box of salt? a box of cookies with 2000 calories in it? i agree there needs to be packages that are "the whole package," particularly those that companies unjustifiably (other than manipulating consumer perception) increase servings per package, or offer servings for unreasonable portion sizes. i'm not sure exactly how they might enact this sort of legislation, and i foresee companies finding all sorts of loopholes to evade whatever sort of regulation might be made...

                        1. re: Emme

                          I see your point but I don't think it's that difficult. Almost all packaged foods fall into one of three categories: whole, incremental, unit.

                          Whole: something that's likely to be consumed in its entirety upon opening - a can of soup or tuna, say. Cover the whole package.

                          Incremental: something that will normally be consumed only in small quantities, like salt or mustard. List nutrition per teaspoon (or gram, whatever).

                          Unit: things that are packaged as multiple individual items, like cookies and hotdogs. List the values per item.

                          The biggest arguments are lkely to arise between the whole and incremental categories (how much of a whole kielbasa or ham is a portion?)

                          It shouldn't be rocket science to set up a clear set of basic guidelines. And to enforce the guidelines, first set up an independent commission authorized to review the process, then tell companies that if they get their portion sizing reviewed and approved they're immune from lawsuits claiming misrepresentation - and make sure the law allows such suits with sufficient damages to ensure they get taken seriously. Sure, lawyers will still find loopholes around the edges, but it would be a huge improvement over the stupidity we have now.

                      2. If people are too ignorant to read the label and figure out exactly how many servings are contained in the entire package, then they deserve to be duped.

                        It takes the reading comprehension skills of a 3rd grader (maybe a smart 2nd grader) and the math skills of a unmotivated 1st grader to figure out the information on the current FDA nutritional labels.

                        As long as the information is accurate and complete, it matters little exactly how it is parsed out.

                        16 Replies
                        1. re: ipsedixit

                          I understand you're exaggerating - first graders haven't been introduced to fractions yet (which you'd need to compare one package that gives a portion size of 2 oz to another with a portion size of 3 oz), realistically I'd say the math skills of a fourth-grade B student - but your point is valid. From one perspective.

                          From another perspective though, that of, let's say, someone who understands that the average supermarket shopper does NOT have the math skills of a B-level fourth grader but is still concerned with raising the nutritional consciousness of said shopper (if only because the sad state of American's health ultimately costs us all*), information that could be clearly understood would be a step forward.

                          *[Why does it cost us all? Because if these people have health insurance they raise the overall costs of insurance for everyone, and it they don't they use the emergency room and don't pay, thus raising the costs of the health care system even MORE for everyone.]

                          1. re: ipsedixit

                            ipse baby, I'm not "too ignorant to read the label." I just don't see why I should have to fish out the reading glasses* every damn time I buy a can of something, especially if it's the sort of thing one normally expects to be enough food for one person. Like, a can of beans might be split among two people, or a can of condensed soup, but a can of ready-to-serve soup? That's obviously a single serving, wouldn't any normal person (okay, normal AMERICAN person) think?

                            *You neglected to note the other thing, which is that while the comprehension of a 3rd-grader should be adequate to understand these labels, the EYEBALLS of a 3rd-grader are absolutely required! Even with reading glasses and ample light I have some real problems sometimes.

                            1. re: Will Owen

                              Fine, make the labels bigger. But don't force government mandated serving sizes on food manufacturers.

                              The lesser of two evils is still an evil.

                              1. re: ipsedixit

                                If they're being forced to provide nutritional information (which they are), why should they not be required to provide this information as accurately as possible? Unrealistic portion sizes are intentionally deceptive - why is it evil to try to prevent deception?

                                1. re: BobB

                                  Hear hear--why is the burden always placed on the consumer? Don't companies have a duty as well to avoid being deceptive?

                                  And I like your categories, BobB--unit, whole (serving), incremental. Very logical and easy to understand which of course means never gonna happen.

                                  1. re: coney with everything

                                    Well, ipsedixit obviously has a soft spot for Latin - perhaps (s)he believes we should follow the old motto, "caveat emptor." (Let the buyer beware!)

                                    I prefer the less well-known "Commodum ex iniuria sua nemo habere debet" (No person ought to have advantage from his own wrong) myself.

                                    1. re: coney with everything

                                      you are right the companies do have a duty to represent their product honestly.. but if their direct competition is using a much smaller portion size as in the above mentioned case of the sausage... chances are the other (lower fat etc..) product will sell better... as LOTS of people do not read all the information provided on the lable, so they are simply looking for the least salt, or the lowest sugar.

                                      So does it fall on the producer to be more honest than the competition? and loose sales, or does the burden fall on the government to make sweaping changes for all food regulations and lable reporting?

                                      my vote is government, spurred by concerned citizens.... (in my dream world that is)

                                    2. re: BobB

                                      "If they're being forced to provide nutritional information (which they are), why should they not be required to provide this information as accurately as possible?"


                                      How is the current nutritional information not accurate?

                                      Even if a can of soup is divided into 2 serving sizes, the nutritional label still provides complete and accurate information -- you just have to double all the amounts in order to find the total calories, vitamins, sodium content, etc., for the entire can.

                                      How is that not accurate?

                                      When I think of accuracy -- or lack thereof, I think of things that say 0 Trans Fat per serving when in fact there is trans fat, but just not enough to be nutritionally labeled as such by the FDA. I find that to be not accurate (and that's not even something that the manufacturer perpetrates -- it's government sanctioned).

                                      1. re: ipsedixit

                                        A better term than accurate might be clearly comprehensible. But you don't address the aspect of being intentionally misleading.

                                        Or actually you do, but in a way that defeats your own argument. Your complaint that they can claim zero trans fat content is directly related to the misleading portion size. They are allowed to say there is none if the actual amount is below a certain level (0.5 grams, I believe), PER SERVING! So if there are two grams of trans fats in a real serving, simply declare the serving size to be 1/5 of what it really is and Voila! No trans fats!

                                        I guess you agree with us after all.

                                        And hey, no props for my use of Latin? ;-)

                                        1. re: BobB

                                          "They are allowed to say there is none if the actual amount is below a certain level (0.5 grams, I believe), PER SERVING! "


                                          The thing is that those standards are set by the FDA. Thus, the manufacturers are doing nothing illegal, or deceiving.

                                          1. re: ipsedixit

                                            Illegal, no. Neither I not anyone else here ever claimed it was. Deceiving? I think you will not find a single soul (at least of those taking part in this discussion) who would not find that to be an intentionally deceptive practice.

                                            Besides, didn't you yourself just say in your previous post that "I find that to be not accurate"? And no, I'm not ignoring the parenthetical phrase with which you followed that. I do disagree with it, however. You imply that because the government allows them to deny the existence of substances that fall below a certain level, the way they label it is entirely the government's fault.

                                            Au contraire, mon ami(e).

                                            First of all, it's entirely reasonable to allow them not to list substances that fall below some threshold, or else you'd need to publish a 50-page document with every product listing every possible trace element down to a molecular level. Where that level should be set is open to debate, and arguably it could be lower.

                                            Second, just because this practice is allowed by law doesn't mean they are required to invent portion sizes that hide the true nature of the product. That's purely their choice - and they make that choice in order to deceive the public. The fact that government is complicit to some degree just means we need better regulation.

                                            1. re: BobB

                                              With respect to the 0 Trans Fat example, my point was that if anything is deceptive about the current nutritional label it would be because of what the FDA allows to be labeled as "0" in terms of per serving.

                                              With respect to just the question of serving sizes and how manufacturers are determining serving sizes in a somewhat arbitrary -- with some professing it to be artificial -- manner, there's nothing deceptive about it, or inaccurate. Currently, if you want to know the total calories in a can of soup, you can certainly get that information as it is now displayed on the nutritional label. How is that wrong? Or inaccurate?

                                              To go back to your position that "just because this practice is allowed by law doesn't mean they are required to invent portion sizes that hide the true nature of the product." How are they hiding the true nature of their product. It's all there in plain sight for the consumer to figure out.

                                              1. re: ipsedixit

                                                "How are they hiding the true nature of their product."

                                                The only actual "hiding" going on is in your own example of the "missing" trans fats - which is achieved by a combination of the government's declaration of how low a level (per serving) need not be listed and the manufacturer's choice of what to declare as a serving size. Both parties are complicit - to my mind the manufacturer more so (and I gave my reasoning for that in my previous post) - and all I'm doing here is paraphrasing your own claim that by not listing trans fats they are in fact hiding the true nature of their product. Or to put it in your own words: "When I think of accuracy -- or lack thereof, I think of things that say 0 Trans Fat per serving when in fact there is trans fat, but just not enough to be nutritionally labeled as such by the FDA. I find that to be not accurate." That you choose to declare this inaccuracy to be 100% the FDA's fault is, to my mind, itself an inaccuracy and I've stated clearly why that is so.

                                                As for why spurious portion sizes are a deceptive practice in general, just read this thread in its entirety for many good reasons why I and pretty much everyone else here thinks so. If you think they're a good (or at least innocuous) thing, I'm running out of ways to convince you otherwise. We'll just have to agree to disagree.

                                                1. re: BobB

                                                  We will have to just agree to disagree.

                                                  As an aside, I think before we can really argue about whether portion sizes are set artificially or not, we first have to consider what should be the correct serving size -- and whether that question can even be answered from a normative standpoint.

                                                  For example, you might consider a can of soup to be one serving size, but I might think of it as 2 servings because for some reason I like smaller portions of soup with my meal. I'm not being facetious, or argumentative in this example. Even with those single serving microwavable soup containers, I rarely consume the entire package. It's usually divided up into 2 servings for me.

                                                  Now, someone below mentioned that in the UK a serving size is just a standard measurement (e.g. 100 grams). That's actually a good way of settling this debate. Just normalize all serving sizes. If we don't want to be metric about the whole thing, then maybe define a serving size as 10 ounces?

                                                  1. re: ipsedixit

                                                    Now there I can agree with you almost completely - my only quibble is that the British standard of 100g does not define a serving size, just a standard amount for purposes of nutritional comparison. Serving size seems to be a dangerously loaded term, perhaps best left out of the discussion entirely.

                                                    Ten ounces seems a bit high for most things, I'd think giving the values per ounce would work well. Although I'd still prefer to see something like the Whole-Incremental-Unit system I proposed above.

                                                    1. re: BobB

                                                      Your proposed "whole-incremental-unit" would still not work.

                                                      Because as I mentioned above, I don't consider a can of soup a "whole" -- or as you say, something that's likely to be consumed in its entirety upon opening.

                                                      While your system would probably be an improvement, it still requires normative judgments of what should or should not be a "whole" or an "increment" or a "unit". I, mean, seriously, what if I am a ketchup fiend and really really like ketchup on my morning eggs? Instead of a teaspoon of ketchup, I enjoy 10 tablespoons of ketchup?

                                                      Best way is just to standardize the serving size -- be it by ounce, or gram, or whatever. Just standardize the damn thing so people like you and me can get on with our lives ...

                              2. When they first begun putting nutritional information on items, a chocolaterie had given an individually packaged peanut butter Easter egg a "serving size" of 3/4 of the egg. Annoyed, I had a Becky Bloomwood moment and asked if they really expected me to eat 3/4 of an egg; they nicely explained their reasons and assured me they would be rectifying it with the next batch of labels. They did. Most times, though, I agree, it's been done so that the food doesn't look as "bad" as it would with a realistic serving size. I liked Bob B's suggestion as how to label different kinds of foods—sounds logical to me.

                                1. Do people really have to look at labels to tell them how much they should be eating?

                                  4 Replies
                                  1. re: Peg

                                    I don't think that is really the question, obviously most people do not read the suggested serving "instructions" before snacking.
                                    What I think people do need to read is what is in the food they are eating! The big business of food is incredibly sneaking, and consumers should be eating only food which they can clearly identify all components of within the ingredient list, to be somewhat certain of what they are actually consuming.

                                    1. re: Peg

                                      People on Weight Watchers do have to "look at labels to tell them how much they should be eating", as not paying attention to what constitutes a normal serving is part of what caused the weight issue in the first place. The WW "point value" of food is based on a serving size, so how "serving" is defined is important to those of us who do that program.

                                      When something which obviously contains one serving says it has two or more is a pet peeve of mine. It causes me to have to do more math operations, and the less math I have in my life the better I like it. I always assumed that the reasoning behind this is that if the ordinary person who reads labels casually flips to the back of, say, a potato chip packet they might react with, "Oh, 250 calories - that's not bad" -- not reading further to see that 250 calories equals 5 chips or some such silliness. If they saw on the back that 1 packet = 1 serving = 1000 calories, they might be more likely to put the item back on the supermarket shelf, and in corporate America we just can't have that. It's "intentionally deceptive", as BobB said, and it annoys me mightily.

                                      1. re: woodleyparkhound

                                        Ah - international differences. In the UK everything is labelled 'per 100g'. Some things get additionally labelled per package. Some things (imports mainly) say things like 'contains 5 servings'.
                                        Only the 'per 100g' is required - making cross comparisons easy. Well, easy unless you assume the pack conatins 100g I guess.

                                      2. re: Peg

                                        I think that sometimes, yes, because our ideas of a "serving size" have become warped by super-sizing, jumbo whatevers and generous portions. I find it interesting that what used to be McDonald's regular (and only) size drink back when is now the small.

                                        Also, when eating a piece of something (as in my chocolate) I want to know the nutritional info on the whole piece, not a fraction of it.

                                      3. The simplest solution is to deal with the rounding problem, not the size problem. Rounding conceals a lot more than most people realize, and affects the total calorie count differently than the component nutrient information. It would be straightforward to require the component nutrient info to be accurate to the second decimal place (and perhaps require uniform rounding up from the third decimal place in the case of fats and sugars).

                                        1. OMG. Drinks!! Who has 1/2 can of iced tea or soda? I hate having to add up the calories so that I can figure out how much the entire drink equals. Honest Tea does this and I don't fall for their "shenanigans" (great word btw) but it is totally some sort of marketing scheme on their part.