We take a look at the variation in serving sizes and food portions.
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Food portion sizes are increasing. In the US in the 1950s, McDonald’s offered just one size of soft drink – 7oz (about 210mL). It now has 12, 16, 21 and 32oz (950mL) offerings. And French fries and hamburgers are now two to five times larger than those originally offered. Portion distortion has even occurred in the home, where the sizes of our bowls and glasses have steadily increased and the surface area of the average dinner plate has increased 36% since 1960.
CHOICE research has found huge variations in the serving sizes of supermarket food items, and the bigger the portion, the more you eat and the more kilojoules (energy) you consume. Between 1983/85 and 1995, energy intake increased significantly for both adults and children in Australia. Without an equivalent increase in energy expenditure, increases in energy intake can result in significant weight gain over time.
The latest food and nutrition publication from the government’s Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that we have one of the highest rates of obesity in the world - 23% of children and 61% of adults are overweight or obese. So any factor contributing to increasing energy intakes and rising obesity rates needs be taken very seriously.
Servings vs Portions
Manufacturers and the food industry recommend serving sizes for their food (shown on the nutrition information panel or posted on websites), and these are used to determine the percentage daily intake (%DI) figures for kilojoules and other nutrients that some manufacturers choose to display on food labels. Portion size, on the other hand, is the amount of food you actually serve up for yourself or purchase to eat.
In theory you should be able to use these manufacturer serving recommendations to monitor and control how much you’re eating. But with large packets that contain multiple servings – including even some foods that are packed into what appear to be individual portions – following the recommended serving sizes isn’t necessarily as sensible or straightforward as it sounds.
In the US, serving sizes are regulated by its Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but these have been criticised as out of date and unrealistic. In many instances they’re smaller than the amounts typically eaten, with critics arguing they understate the kilojoules, sodium and saturated fat people will actually consume as a result.
In Australia, it’s up to the manufacturer to determine the serving sizes, and this system is also flawed. Serving sizes are often inconsistent between comparable products, and even within the same brands, and some are simply unrealistic. Serving size nonsense gives examples.
And as in the US, in some food categories such as cereal products, serving sizes are lower than the typical reported amounts consumed by adult Australians and those recommended in the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating. It’s not surprising that studies have found that people generally can’t correctly estimate the number of servings in a package.