You may be using the terms “serving” and “portion” interchangeably. But they aren’t always the same thing.
When the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) established the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act in 1990, it launched the development of the Nutrition Facts panel that you see on every package of food that you buy. The Nutrition Facts Panel is where you’ll find the calorie and nutrient content of a designated “serving” of the food inside the package.
When the law was written, it was decided that serving size on the label should reflect the amount that people typically eat or drink. It wasn’t meant to be a suggestion for how much should be eaten. So, in order to establish the serving sizes for labeling purposes, the FDA used information obtained from food consumption surveys that were taken around that time.
Those serving sizes were established in 1993—and haven’t been changed since.
As you might imagine, even though the serving sizes listed on Nutrition Facts panels haven’t changed since then, the amount of food that we eat certainly has. And that means that for a number of foods the serving sizes that were established in 1993 don’t adequately reflect what we actually eat today.
In fact, in looking at more recent food consumption data, the FDA has determined that 27 out of 158 (about 17%) of the reference serving sizes should be changed. As a result, in July of last year the FDA proposed updating many of the serving sizes on the Nutrition Facts panel in order to reflect our increasing appetites. These changes that will be gradually phased in over a two-year period.
In essence, what this change may do is to bring “serving” and “portion” more in alignment. And here’s why. Although we tend to use the terms interchangeably, servings and portions aren’t the same thing.
What you see listed on a food package is a serving as defined by the FDA. But your portion is the amount of food you actually eat. It’s the amount you serve yourself (or the amount a restaurant serves you), and it’s often a lot larger than the officially defined serving.
For example, a grain serving as defined by the FDA is a “one ounce equivalent.” That’s one slice of bread, which for many people might also be their portion. But it’s also half of an English muffin, half of a hamburger bun, or a bagel the size of a yo-yo. So, if you eat the whole English muffin or a whole hamburger bun (which would be a more typical portion), that’s actually two grain servings. And the bagel? If your portion is one of those huge coffeehouse-type bagels, you could be eating as many as four official grain servings.
In many cases, the portions we eat dwarf the servings designated by the USDA. By a lot. Most people eat twice the official serving size of ice cream. A typical plate of pasta holds about five official servings, and our cookie portions are a staggering seven times the standard.
Over the past few decades, the amount we actually eat (our portions) have gotten larger—both at home and at restaurants. So, our perception of what is a reasonable amount of food to eat is also increasing.
But here’s something to keep in mind. While the proposed changes to the serving sizes on the Nutrition Facts panel are designed to keep pace with the way we eat today, that doesn’t necessarily mean that these new serving sizes are the amounts that the government recommends that you eat. The changes are designed simply to make it easier for consumers to figure out exactly what they’re eating.
For example, the current serving size of soda is 8 ounces (about 250mL). But how often do you come across an 8-ounce container of soda? More typically, you’ll find soda in 20-ounce containers (about 600mL), which would be 2½ servings under the current labeling law. But most people who buy a 20-ounce container of soda are probably going to consume the entire thing. In other words, it’s one portion.
Since the current information on the Nutrition Facts panel refers to an 8-ounce serving, it means that if you choose to drink the entire container, you’d need to multiply the calorie and nutrient values listed on the label by 2.5 to know exactly what you’re taking in. Many people don’t realize this and assume that the nutrition information reflects what’s in the entire can or bottle of soda.
Under the proposed changes, new Nutrition Facts panels will supply the nutrition information for the entire 20-ounce container. And that should bring to your attention that you’ll be pouring over 200 calories and 18 packets of sugar down your throat.
But there is a potential downside.
If you pay attention to the current Nutrition Facts panel on that 20-ounce soda, it should register that you’re drinking more than one serving if you swallow the whole thing. While that may not stop you from downing the entire can, it might give you pause. On the other hand, if the new label says that a serving is the full container, does that somehow normalize it? In other words, is 20 ounces the new 8?
The proposed changes are done with good intentions. That should make it easier for consumers to keep tabs on their calorie and nutrient intake. But changing the serving sizes on the package doesn’t change the fact that, for many people, their typical portions are much larger than official servings.
A nutrition facts panel can be a great tool in helping you keep track of what your eating. That’s as long as you pay attention to your portion size and compare it to the serving size on the package. There’s a lot of great information on the package, but you do have to read the nutrition facts carefully so you know exactly what you’re eating.