Serving up inconsistency

CHOICE takes a look at the unrealistic and variable serving sizes provided by food and drink manufacturers and retailers.
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01 .Serving sizes


We take a look at the variation in serving sizes and food portions.

In this article:

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In the US, serving sizes are regulated by its Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but these have been criticised as out of date and unrealistic.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.


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Manufacturer-recommended serving sizes can be variable and unrealistic, as the following examples demonstrate. So they shouldn’t form the basis of a front-of-pack labelling system for our food products. 

CHOICE believes the proposed Health Star Rating scheme would be more helpful because the star ratings are based on 100g/ML of the product. This system would help consumers compare products at a glance and identify the healthier options more easily.

Comparable products, different serving sizes

 oats  healthy-choice  coles-popcorn
A serving of Woolworths Home Brand Quick Oats (30g) vs a serving of Freedom Foods Quick Oats (60g) A serving of McCain Healthy Choice Chinese Chicken and Cashews (280g) vs a serving of McCain Healthy Choice Plus Honey Stirfry Chicken (420g) A serving of Coles Organic Sweet and Salty Popcorn (20g) vs a serving of Coles Butter Microwave Popcorn (100g)

Same product, different serving sizes

 mars-bar  smiths-chips
A Mars Bar serving is 18g, 36g or 53g depending on the pack size A serving of Smith’s Chips Original is 19g, 27g or 45g depending on the pack size

Unrealistic serving sizes

bulla-yoghurt   golden-circle dominos-pizza-hut 
A 225g tub of Bulla Yoghurt Crunch contains 2.25 servings (conveniently, one single serving is just under 600kJ, the generally accepted reasonable energy for a snack) A 300mL bottle of Golden Circle Healthy Life Probiotic juice contains 1.5 servings, although people can reasonably consume the whole bottle in a single sitting A serving of Domino’s and Pizza Hut pizza from their regular range is just one slice; we believe most people would eat at least two or more

To help reduce portion distortion – and control kilojoule intake:

  • Eat from smaller plates and bowls and use smaller spoons for serving and eating. One US study found that switching from a 10- to a 12-inch dinner plate (equivalent to switching from a 25cm to 30cm plate) caused people to consume 22% more calories at a meal. Australian research has shown that reducing portion sizes is an effective technique for weight loss.
  • Drink from tall narrow glasses rather than short wide glasses. Studies have found that people pour 28-77% more into short wide glasses.
  • Pre-portion your foods. Don’t eat directly from a box or bag or container that contains multiple servings of a food such as a family size bag of chips or a tub of ice cream. It’s hard to keep track of how much you’re eating so it's easy to overeat.
  • Don’t have second helpings.
  • Choose the smallest container/cup/plate on offer when buying takeaways. They usually contain more than enough food (and kilojoules).
  • Don’t be tempted by value meals or supersized/king-sized portions. They may be good value for money, but they’re often bad bargains in terms of kilojoules.
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