Larger serving sizes on food packs could reduce intake & fight obesity

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

Who are all the pie? European consumers   © iStock /  Maramorosz
Who are all the pie? European consumers © iStock / Maramorosz

Related tags Portion sizes Nutrition Food

Larger serving sizes on a food’s packaging encourage people to eat less, US researchers have found, as consumer groups in Europe put pressure on policymakers to help food manufacturers set realistic portion sizes.

In one recently published study, US researchers from the Georgetown University found that, rather than increasing consumption of the food as one hypothesis posits, 

The researchers say the findings have important implications for policy makers. “The studies find that the specific nutrition information provided with foods has a significant impact on perceptions of health, guilt, and estimated caloric intake. Providing consumers with easier to comprehend and more accurate information on all foods served in all contexts could reduce overeating,” ​they write, adding that updating serving sizes could in this way curb the obesity epidemic.

Current EU legislation allows food companies to determine their own serving sizes. But European consumer rights organisation, BEUC, says this lack of harmonisation leads to a range of different interpretations and, in some cases, none of these accurately reflect what people actually eat. 

The watchdog organisation has released a minisite ‘What’s in your kitchen?’​ which highlights some of the food issues faced by consumers. One of these is misleading portion sizes.

Pauline Castres, food policy officer at BEUC told us: "EU consumers are facing a jungle of portion sizes across food categories and brands. This makes it impossible for them to monitor their salt, sugar and calories intakes and even more difficult to compare similar products. Today the food industry is free to determine what an acceptable serving size is. If they are serious about helping consumers to make informed choices their products should refer to accurate and realistic portions. Yet this couldn't be further from the truth."

While many breakfast cereal packages refer to one portion as being 30 g, others say 45 g – but the average person tends to consume around 60 g of cereal in one go, according to BEUC. Meanwhile Dutch consumer watchdog Consumentenbond found a pack containing three cookies which listed the serving size and nutrition information for one cookie only. This is misleading, says BEUC: who would only eat one cookie when the pack contains three?

Castres is calling on the EU to act. "The European Commission is required by law to provide guidance to the industry about what realistic and obvious portion sizes are. And this is urgently needed. Yet on several occasions the European Commission stressed that such guidance was not a priority issue. Given that public health authorities across the EU and in the US are increasingly focusing on portion sizes to combat obesity we believe that the European Commission should speed up its work."

The study

Conducting their study in three parts, the researchers used a variety of food categories and well-known brands to US consumers: Red Baron frozen pizza, Barilla penne pasta, Fruit Loops cereal, Kraft sliced swiss cheese, and Applegate Farms sliced ham.

In the first leg of the study, 208 participants were shown pictures of packaged food and nutrition labels with the labels bearing normal or larger serving sizes. For all food types tested (….0) the larger portions led to lower health perceptions, and were also rated as being more representative of typical consumption. In the second part, 347 online participants were asked to visually portion foods. While serving sizes did not impact the amount of food consumers portioned, those who saw labels with larger serving sizes estimated that they portioned out more calories, write Hydock et al.

Finally, for the third experiment 198 students were given M&Ms to eat that bore a nutrition label depicting either the current or larger serving size. Those who were shown the larger serving consumed less than those who had the normal one.

“The results suggest that [an] increase in serving sizes on nutrition facts panels could lower consumption of high-calorie foods” ​the researchers write.

Meanwhile, actual portion sizes for certain packaged foods have increased. A 2013 report from the British Heart Foundation found that average individual meat lasagne portions are 39% larger and individual chicken pies 40% larger than in 1993, although chocolate bars and ice creams tended to be smaller.

Food industry group FoodDrinkEurope has published best practice guidelines for food companies​ food information including on serving sizes.

Source: AppetiteJournal

First available online. Vol. 101, June 2016, pp. 71–79

“The effects of increased serving sizes on consumption”

Authors: Chris Hydock, Anne Wilson​, Karthik Easwar

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