by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Portion sizes

Feb 21 2010

Do 2-in-1 packs encourage people to eat less chocolate? Alas, no.

European candy makers have been responding to concerns about obesity by taking their ordinary chocolate bars and packaging them so the pack contains two pieces, instead of just one.  Do people eat just one?  According to Dutch researchers, they do not.

Candy eaters “still perceive the entire package as one unit instead of two, because they come in the same wrapper. This also makes them less storable.”

Suggestion: how about making smaller candy bars to begin with?

Dec 19 2009

Serving size standards: maybe not so bad after all?

I received a flurry of “you should have attended the meeting before you said anything” messages in response to my post yesterday about the FTC forum.  They said the table that I posted did not have footnotes attached and I also had missed a key point about RACC (reference amounts commonly consumed): they are likely to be larger than current FDA serving sizes, meaning that the amounts of sugars and salt will have to be reduced to qualify.

Guilty as charged.  RACC, as I mentioned yesterday, is a new term to me.  This is because – how could anyone have missed this – I was unaware of the FDA’s Federal Register notice of April 4, 2005: “Serving sizes of products that can reasonably be consumed at one eating occasion; Updating of reference amounts customarily consumed; Approaches for recommending smaller portion sizes.”

This notice was the result of concerns about the serving sizes that had been established when the FDA issued final food labeling regulations in 1993.  Then, the FDA established serving sizes for 129 product categories for adult foods and 11 categories for infant and toddler foods.  These were derived from information about amounts commonly consumed reported in food consumption surveys from the late 1970s and late 1980s.

Either people ate a lot less back then or they were lying, or both.  As my former doctoral student, now Dr. Lisa Young, discovered during her doctoral research, standard portion sizes – half a cup of ice cream or one 2 or 3-ounce slice of pizza, for example – are smaller (sometimes much smaller) than what people seem to be actually eating.

The FDA knew this.  In 2003, it appointed an Obesity Working Group to advise the agency about several issues, among them whether to update the RACCs.  The Group filed its report in 2004.  With respect to serving size, it recommended:

* In the short-term, that FDA encourage manufacturers immediately to take advantage of the flexibility in current regulations on serving sizes that allows food packages to be labeled as a single-serving if the entire content of the package can reasonably be consumed at a single-eating occasion.

* In the long-term, that FDA develop two separate ANPRMs [Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking].  The first would solicit comment on whether to require additional columns within the nutrition label to list the quantitative amounts and %DV of the entire package on those products and package sizes that can reasonably be consumed at one eating occasion or, alternatively, declare the whole package as a single serving. This ANPRM would also solicit information on products and package sizes that can reasonably be consumed at one eating occasion.  The second ANPRM would solicit comments on which, if any, RACCs of food categories appear to have changed the most over the past decade and therefore need to be updated.

On that basis, the FDA’s 2005 Federal Register notice asked for comments about whether:

  • Consumers might “think that an increase in serving size on food labels means more of the food should be eaten.”
  • Manufacturers might repackage products in larger sizes to avoid labeling a package as a single serving.
  • Manufacturers might reduce the size of single-serving packages to reduce the apparent content of undesirable nutrients.

That was nearly five years ago.  If anything further happened, I cannot find it in the Federal Register. Getting to these questions at last was apparently the point of the FTC forum.

I am told that panelists suggested raising the RACC serving size of kids’ cereals to 50 grams rather than the current 30 grams.  If so, this would require cereal companies to reduce the amount of sugars in their products.   Aha!  That could explain why, as I discussed in a previous post, General Mills chose to put its full-page ads in newspapers promising to drop the sugars to single digits.  General Mills must think changes in the RACC for cereals will require it to lower the sugars in order to be able to advertise to kids under the voluntary guidelines. Given how long the FDA’s processes take, it is understandable why General Mills failed to say when it would implement its promist.  I am also told that the salt cut-point is open for comment.

For those of us who were not at the Forum and prefer to see such things in writing, how about releasing the footnotes to that chart and giving us some examples of the proposed changes to the RACC?  Also, how about setting up a mechanism so interested people can file official comments on the proposals?  Both would help people offer more informed comments on how the FDA should handle the serving size issues.

Update, December 20: Thanks to Ellen Fried for providing a link to some food industry opinion on what all this is about and another an in-the-know source that says the proposed standards are to be published in the Federal Register and opened for further public comment in January.  The project is to be finished by July.  Ellen points out that this procedure seems administratively complicated for standards that are not regulations; they are voluntary. Do the FTC and FDA really have to go through all this to issue what is simply guidance?  Or is something else going on here that I’m not getting?

May 12 2009

The amazing New York Times birthday cake!

I’m still in awe of Melissa Clark’s “mature and restrained” recipe for Almond Birthday Cake with Sherry-Lemon Butter Cream. She says the recipe yields 8 servings.  But she surely must mean 24.

I used the USDA’s handy food composition data base to add up the calories: 1,060 per slice!

Yum.

Feb 16 2009

Expanding portion sizes in the Joy of Cooking

Brian Wansink’s latest paper is an analysis of the increasing size of servings and meals through multiple editions of the classic cookbook, Joy of Cooking. These, he finds, have increased by 35%.  My former doctoral student, Lisa Young, looked at how portion sizes began to balloon in the early 1980s in parallel with increasing calories in the food supply (from 3,200 to 3,900 per day per capita) and with rising rates of obesity.  She showed how readers using identical recipes were instructed to make far fewer cookies in newer editions of the Joy of Cooking and wrote about this phenomenon in her book, The Portion Teller.

I wrote about this last year in a letter to the New York Times: “To the Editor: I could not resist looking up the calories for the gorgeous chocolate chip cookie recipe given on July 9. That recipe calls for about 4 pounds of ingredients to make only 18 cookies, each of which runs 500 calories — one quarter of the amount needed by most people for an entire day. I’d call one of those cookies lunch or share it with three friends. By the way, a similar recipe in the 1975 “Joy of Cooking” made 45 cookies with just half the ingredients. These would be just under 100 calories each.”

The point of all this: larger portions have more calories! And you need no further explanation for rising rates of obesity.

Update February 18: Wansink is a professor at Cornell, and the Cornell Chronicle did a story on it.

Oct 15 2008

The irony of too little and too much food

Surely, this collection of items is nothing if not ironic.  The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has issued its 2008 Global Hunger Index, which maps 33 countries with alarmingly high rates of hunger.  And then we have Taco Bell’s new Big Bell Box; it racks up 1670 calories with the drink and more than 3 grams of sodium (about 7 grams of salt).  We also have the Heart Attack Grill, which I guess is not really a joke.

I thank Andy Bellatti and Hugh Joseph for pointing these out (I think).

Oct 21 2007

No end to supersizing

Here’s Lisa Young’s MSNBC summary of her latest observations of what fast food chains are doing about portion sizes–the same or bigger, in a word. If you want to read the article on which it’s based, look under Publications. Enjoy (?)

Aug 9 2007

Better Nutrition Labels?

Today’s question (see Vending Machines post): “I was looking at the Nutrition Facts Label on a bag of carrots today…If I read this label and compare it to packaged foods, the carrots really don’t look all that healthy. And yet I know they are. I have the same experience with apples and with other fruits and vegetables. What needs to be added and changed on the Nutrition Facts panel so that this makes more sense? Has anyone done a blind study of nutrition labels, having people compare them side-by-side and see which food they believe is more healthy without knowing what the food is, but from the label alone?”

Response: When Congress passed the nutrition labeling act of 1990, which mandated Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods, the FDA created a bunch of possible designs and tested them on consumers. The result: nobody understood any of the designs. The FDA chose the one that consumers least misunderstood. In What to Eat, I devote two chapters to explaining food labels, one for Nutrition Facts, and one for Ingredients. The FDA has a lengthy site to teach the public to understand food labels. I think the ingredient list tells you more about the real nutritional value of foods than the Facts part. My rule, only somewhat facetious, is to never buy foods that have more than 5 ingredients. The more processed a food is, the more ingredients it is likely to have (to cover up the losses), and the lower its nutritional quality. Fresh and some frozen foods have only one ingredient: carrots, apples, broccoli, beans. The most important thing I’d change on food labels is the calories. The FDA proposed five years ago to require packages likely to be consumed by one person to display the total number of calories on the front panel, rather than listing calories per serving, which makes the calories appear lower than they are. What happened to that excellent proposal? It disappeared without a trace (the packaged food industry loathes the idea). It’s tricky to figure out what else an ideal food label would display. Any ideas? Forward them to the FDA (and post them here, of course).

Jul 22 2007

McDonald’s Portions

The New York Times business reporter, Andrew Martin, starts a new column on the food and beverage industries today with an article on McDonald’s Portion Sizes and the introduction of Hugo drinks to temporarily replace the company’s phased-out Supersize portions. Mr. Martin’s article draws on a study on McDonald’s promises versus actions that I did in collaboration with my former doctoral student, Dr. Lisa Young, just published in the Journal of Public Health Policy. If you look at the comments to my previous entry on Hugo drinks, people do love getting 42-ounce drinks for as little as 69 cents. And, of course, they can fill those cups with water if they like.

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