food serving sizes

Food Serving Sizes Get a Reality Check

The last time you scooped some ice cream for dessert, did you limit yourself to half a cup? If you took more—you’re right in step with most people these days.

Likewise with a soft drink: Do you drink 8 ounces, 12 ounces, or even the whole 20-ounce bottle?

Ice cream and soft drinks are just two products that have been affected by changes in food serving size requirements that are included in the new Nutrition Facts label. The goal: to bring serving sizes closer to what people actually eat so that when they look at calories and nutrients on the label, these numbers more closely match what they are consuming.

The serving sizes listed on the Nutrition Facts label are not recommended serving sizes. By law, food serving sizes must be based on how much food people actually consume, and not on what they should eat.

“The fact is, for many foods, we’re eating larger portions than we used to,” said Jillonne Kevala, Ph.D., supervisory chemist at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “And the changes to the Nutrition Facts label reflect that.”

In 1993, when FDA created the Nutrition Facts label, the standards used to determine serving sizes—called the Reference Amounts Customarily Consumed—were based primarily on surveys of food consumption conducted in 1977-1978 and 1987-1988. The 1993 RACCs have since been used by manufacturers to calculate the serving sizes on their packages.

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“We now have much more recent food consumption data, and it showed us that some serving sizes on food labels should change,” said Douglas Balentine, Ph.D., director of FDA’s Office of Nutrition and Food Labeling. For example, serving sizes for muffins have changed. People generally consume an entire muffin, and not a half or a third.

In some cases, the reference amounts used to set food serving sizes are smaller. Today’s individually packaged yogurts more often come in 6-ounce containers, versus the previous 8-ounce ones. FDA is now using a 6-ounce reference amount for yogurt.

But the serving size for ice cream has gotten a little larger. Instead of a half of a cup, it’s now two-thirds of a cup.

FDA has also changed the criteria for labeling based on package size, as “we know that package size affects what people eat,” Balentine said.

With the new requirements, more food products previously labeled as more than one serving are now required to be labeled as just one serving. Why? Because people are more likely to eat or drink them in one sitting. Examples include a 20-ounce can of soda and a 15-ounce can of soup.

And certain larger packages that may be consumed either in one sitting or more than one sitting—depending on your appetite and inclination—must now be labeled both per serving and per package. This dual-column format is required if a package contains at least two times the reference amount customarily consumed (on which the serving size is based) and less than or equal to three times the reference amount. Some examples are a 19-ounce can of soup and 3-ounce bag of chips.

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Currently, manufacturers are only required to provide the calorie and nutrient information per serving, and you have to do the math if you’re eating the whole container. So if you have a hankering for some chips and eat an entire package, now you’ll have easier access to information about what you’re consuming.

For packages that are clearly larger than most people would eat in one sitting—one that has more than three servings—the dual column is not required. Manufacturers are only required in these cases to label these products per serving. Examples include a “party size” bag of chips or a two-liter bottle of soda.

“We hope that updating the label in these ways makes it easier for people to be more realistic about the number of calories and nutrients they’re actually consuming and to make healthier choices when choosing foods for themselves and their families,” Balentine said.

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