Portion sizes for packaged foods are a focus area for the food industry as healthier eating and anti obesity strategies are looking to help people rebalance energy intake and expenditure. Some nutritional labelling schemes, such as guidance daily amounts (GDAs) are based on portion size.
The new report is based on consumer research undertaken in focus groups, and through a quantitative survey of 1,067 adults aged 15 and over in April 2009.
It found that while consumers liked portion size information on packs, they use it as guidance in the loose sense and tend to purchase extra as they are unwilling to rely on the quantities suggested by manufacturers.
Thirty six per cent of respondents said they ignored the portion size information on the pack; 38 per cent said they will eat what they want regardless of what it says on the label.
Moreover, people tend to define portions on the sheer quantity of food. With the exception of people on diets to lose weight or for medical reasons, consumers did not see nutritional content as a factor in determining portion.
Rachel Hackett, author of the report and nutrition manager at IGD, told FoodNavigator.com that the findings highlight the need for food manufacturers and retailers to communicate how they have come up with their portion sizes.
Earlier work by IGD’s industry nutrition strategy group, which is made up of 30 nutritionists who work for retailers, manufacturers and food organisations, found that portion advice drawn up by industry, governments and NGOs is generally based on science and expert bodies.
“We have to find a way for manufacturers to communicate: ‘We haven’t decided based on some nonsense. It is a real, well judged recommendation’,” Hackett said.
Some 48 per cent of respondents indicated that experience indicates how much they eat, but the research did not identify what the precise influences are.
Identifying these would help industry target efforts to promote balanced diets and appropriate portion sizes, but Hackett said in depth research in this area would need to be academically-led.
The IGD group is currently drawing up a set of best practice guidelines on how to communicate portion size. These are due to be published in September.
Research of consumer understanding of portions was seen as vital to developing these guidelines. The report Portion Size: Understanding the Consumer Perspective is already available online.
Hackett said it is not seen as necessary to create an industry standard for portion size communication, in the same vein as a European wide nutritional labelling scheme that being worked out at the moment.
“There was not a clear preference for the language used, however a key point is that language should be consistent on the pack,” she said. For instance, manufacturers should choose between the word ‘serving’ and the work ‘portion’.
Another tip she share was to avoid words like ‘suggested serving’ and ‘typical serving’, as these make people think: 'Who for?'
The report’s basis is research conducted in the UK, but Hackett said that the group is working with multinational food manufacturers so it will be interesting to see whether they implement best practices elsewhere.