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Serving Sizes on Packages Can Be Misleading

You may be eating more than you think

En español | Serving sizes can be sneaky. You think you’re watching your calories by glancing at the nutrition information on the back of your favorite food or beverage, but beware: If you don’t read carefully, you could be taking in four or five times the calories you think you are.

Take, for example, that bag of Bear Naked Banana Nut granola that you like for breakfast. Pour yourself a medium bowlful and you could be eating as many calories and grams of fat as a McDonald’s double cheeseburger. That’s because the actual serving size is only 1/4 cup (a mere 4 tablespoons) and 140 calories. Pour a whole cup’s worth (which is easy to do) and you’re eating 560 calories and 28 grams of fat.

One tiny sliver

Or how about that big four-cheese DiGiorno thin crust frozen pizza you brought home for dinner? The serving size is one-fifth of a square pizza. But, really, who eats just one-fifth of a pizza? And let’s not even talk about trying to cut a square pizza into five equal portions.

Because of these kinds of problems interpreting the fat and calorie information on food labels, the Food and Drug Administration is trying to figure out how to make labels more useful and realistic. Among other things, it is debating whether or not to change serving-size guidelines.

Should it increase serving sizes to reflect how Americans really eat, no matter how unhealthy that might be? Or should it keep the serving amounts the same, but force food companies to do a better job showing how many calories are in that giant bag of chips that you’re consuming all by yourself?

FDA spokesperson Siobhan DeLancey says the government is considering changes to nutritional labeling in conjunction with first lady Michelle Obama’s initiative on childhood obesity.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will issue new federal dietary guidelines this year, which also may affect nutrition labeling.

“This is part of a greater nutritional initiative and a big focus for us,” DeLancey says. “FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg is very game to make packaging easier for people to read and understand and easier to use.” Among the issues she says the FDA currently is debating is, “If we increase the serving size, does that give people permission to eat more?”

Part of the problem, DeLancey notes, is that people don’t flip over the package and look at the nutrition facts. “That’s the key. If you want to eat it all, you just have to do the math.”

A 2008 FDA survey found that fewer than half of Americans check the label for calorie information, while 34 percent rarely or never check the calorie count. In addition, a recent Lempert Report survey of 1,305 supermarket shoppers found that nearly 80 percent find serving-size labeling information confusing.

This comes as no surprise to dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix, a national spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. “People would like to ignore serving size. Who wants to see that the serving size is only one cookie?”

She says she believes the problem isn’t with the numbers in the nutrition facts, but that people don’t multiply those numbers by how many servings they actually consume.

And, she points out, not all calories are created equal: “A serving of a gelatin dessert is 80 calories, and a serving of skim milk is 80 calories, but in no way are they comparable in terms of nutritional value.” The gelatin dessert gets its calories almost entirely from added sugar, while the calories in calcium-rich milk are from protein and natural sugar.

“People need to check the percentage of daily value listed for various nutrients on the label. If there are lots of zeroes, it’s a tip-off that this food could be worth about zero nutritionally,” she says.

Another reason people don’t notice serving-size information is because they assume they know what a typical serving should be.

One bottle, two servings

For example, take the bottle of Honest Tea Cranberry Lemonade that you grab to have with your lunch. One bottle equals one serving, right? No. The label says the bottle contains two servings, so the calories listed are just for half the bottle, or one serving. Do most people realize they’re drinking nearly 100 calories if they finish the whole bottle?

Often the packaging can be deceptive as well. Check the label on that little package of ramen and seasoning that you assumed was just for one. It’s really two servings. Eat the whole package with the seasoning mix and you’ll be getting half a day’s worth of salt.

The problem of labeling extends to restaurants and vending machines, where people often have no idea how many calories they are consuming. That should improve under the new health care reform law, which requires chain restaurants and vending machines to clearly display calorie counts for their foods.

Deciphering the nutrition label can be so challenging at times that Taub-Dix has written a book about it. Due out Aug. 31, it’s called Read It Before You Eat It: How to Decode Food Labels and Make the Healthiest Choice Every Time.

  •  Beware of sodium per serving size. A can of soup, for example, may list sodium for only half a can, or one serving, but you’ll need to double that amount if you’re eating the whole can—as most people do.
  •  Check for sugar. The label doesn’t differentiate between natural sugar (like the kind in fruit) and added sugar (like corn syrup or white sugar). Check the ingredients list. If sugar or high fructose corn syrup is the first or second ingredient, it means that food is mostly made of added sugar.

For those hoping the clarity of food labeling will improve, don’t expect any dramatic changes soon. The FDA’s DeLancey says discussions about label revisions “are still in progress. There are a number of moving parts at this point.” Though the process can be long and complex, she adds, “the sausage is being made.”

Candy Sagon writes about health and nutrition for the Bulletin.