The Great Serving Sizes Debate

When you eat foods that come in a container that’s larger than a single serving (like a box of cereal or crackers), do you use the serving size info listed on the Nutrition Facts panel to determine how much to eat?

For example, on granola type cereals, the serving listed is generally a quarter cup. That’s four level tablespoons, which provides about 150 calories. For whole wheat pasta, one serving is 2 oz dry - one seventh of the box - which makes between half and one cup cooked, for 200 calories.

Sometimes the amount listed as the serving size on a label seems like a reasonable amount to eat in a single meal, but sometimes it doesn’t. A serving of shredded cheese is a quarter cup, OK pretty reasonable, but a movie theatre sized box of candy can contain anywhere from 2 to 4.5 servings (2 for Swedish Fish, 4.5 for Good & Plenty). Even if you would never touch the stuff, would you consider less than one quarter of the box to be a logical portion?

The agency that oversees nutrition labels is considering altering serving sizes to better represent what Americas actually eat. Rather than half a muffin at 200 calories, packages will list a serving as 1 muffin at 400 calories. And instead of 1 oz of tortilla chips at 150 calories (1/9th of the bag), it may list 3 oz at 450 calories. Those calorie numbers may also appear smack dab on the front of the label, so you see them as you’re facing each package in the supermarket.

If this happens, will it affect your shopping and eating habits? Will not having to do the math (e.g. multiplying the calories per serving listed by the number of servings you actually eat) create a “reality check” that causes you to re-think your choices?

Here are a few examples of meals created from serving sizes currently listed, compared to those that are more typical of the way Americans eat:

Breakfast (each food is in the amount listed as 1 serving on the package):

1 slice whole grain bread, toasted – 110 calories

1 large organic egg – 70 calories

1 slice Swiss cheese – 110 calories

8 oz 100% OJ – 110 calories

Total: 400

VS.

Typical American Breakfast:

2 slices whole grain bread, toasted – 220 calories

Omelet made from 3 eggs and ¼ cup shredded cheese – 320

12 oz OJ – 165

Total: 705 (305 more)

Lunch (each food is in the amount listed as 1 serving on the package):

2 soft corn tortillas – 90 calories

4 oz seasoned ground turkey – 160 calories

2 Tbsp chunky salsa – 15 calories

Quarter cup shredded cheddar cheese – 110 calories

Half cup black beans – 90 calories

Total: 465 calories

VS.

Typical American Lunch:

4 soft corn tortillas – 180 calories

8 oz seasoned ground turkey – 320 calories

4 Tbsp chunky salsa – 30 calories

Half cup shredded cheddar cheese – 220 calories

Half cup black beans – 90 calories

Half cup Spanish rice – 130 calories

Total: 970 calories (505 more)

Dinner (each food is in the amount listed as 1 serving on the package):

3 oz cooked salmon – 200 calories

½ cup fingerling potatoes – 50 calories

5 asparagus spears – 20 calories

1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil (to cook potatoes and asparagus) – 120 calories

Total: 390 calories

VS.

Typical American Dinner:

6 oz cooked salmon – 400 calories

1 cup fingerling potatoes – 100 calories

10 asparagus spears – 40 calories

1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil (to cook potatoes and asparagus) – 120 calories

Total: 660 calories (270 more)

Dessert (listed as 1 serving on the package):

Half cup chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream

Total: 270 calories

VS.

Typical American Dessert:

1 cup chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream

Total: 540 calories (270 more)

TOTAL CALORIE DIFFERENCE: 1,350

Will modifying serving sizes trigger Americans to eat less, or will it validate larger servings as “normal”? Please share your thoughts!

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