FDA Boosts Serving Sizes to Reflect Real Eating

Photograph by Tony Robins/Getty Images

When the Food and Drug Administration created the nutrition label in 1993, it based its serving sizes on surveys done in 1978 and 1988 on how much people ate. Back then, it was apparently normal to savor just a modest scoop of ice cream and eight ounces of soda at once. Americans are eating more now. The FDA thinks it’s time for serving sizes to reflect the new normal and is proposing the first changes to nutrition labels in 21 years.

Serving size is just one aspect of the proposed changes, which also call for a label redesign that highlights calories and added sugar. “We now have much more recent food consumption data, and it’s showing that some serving sizes on food labels should be changed,” said Mary Poos, deputy director of FDA’s Office of Nutrition, Labeling and Dietary Supplements, in a statement online.

Anyone who’s paid attention to food labels knows how confusing they can be. How is one bottle of soda equal to 2.5 servings—and what madman decided any package should have an extra 0.5 servings in it? And, truly, who eats just three Oreos in one sitting?

Using surveys from 2003 to 2008, here are some of the FDA’s proposed changes (pdf) to serving sizes.

Ice cream: From ½ cup to 1 cup
Soda: From 8 oz. to 12 oz.
Sugar: From 4 g to 8 g
Bagels, toaster pastries, muffins: From 55 g to 110 g (for context, a Lender’s Bagel is 94 g)

Some things would get smaller—for example, a serving of yogurt would go from eight ounces to six ounces.

Consumers have voiced concern that increasing the serving size would only encourage them to eat more, according to details in the proposed rule. Meanwhile, food manufacturers complained that certain health claims, such as “low fat,” would no longer apply when the serving size goes up, though the FDA points out that as it is now, “a product might qualify to bear a ‘low fat’ nutrient content claim currently, but is actually being customarily consumed in amounts that contain more fat than would qualify for such a claim.”

Despite the FDA’s efforts, surveys by the research group NPD show that consumers are paying less attention to nutrition labels than in the 1990s. For those that do read them, however, the FDA’s realist approach could help them realize how much they’re actually eating.

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