by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Portion sizes

Jan 9 2012

New York CIty Health Department launches portion-size campaign

The amazing New York City Health Department, almost unique in its interest in public health and willingness to do what it can to improve the health of New Yorkers, adds another campaign to its collection of hard hitters.  This one is on the need to reduce portion sizes.

The subway campaign posters in Spanish and English.  Here’s an example in Spanish.

I especially like this campaign because much of the work on increasing portion sizes in the food supply was launched by my former doctoral student, now Dr. Lisa Young.  See:

Larger portions do three things:

  • They have more calories, obviously.
  • They induce people to eat more calories
  • They induce people to underestimate the number of calories they are eating

All of these induce people to eat more than they need or should.

The expansion of portion sizes alone is sufficient to explain rising rates of obesity.

The Health Department’s campaign makes sense.  Let’s hope it helps.

Update, January 10: The American Beverage Association doesn’t like the ads much, according to Crain’s:

Portion control is indeed an important piece of the solution to obesity,” said said Stefan Friedman, New York spokesman for the American Beverage Association, in a statement. “But instead of utilizing scare tactics, the beverage industry is offering real solutions like smaller portioned containers and calorie labels that show the number of calories in the full container, right up front, to help people chose products and sizes that are right for them and their families.

And if you think the New York City ads are tough and hard-hitting, try these “Strong4Life ads from the state of Georgia.  Shocking people out of complacency?  Or just shocking?

Update, January 25: The New York Times reports that the shocking photograph of an overweight man with a leg amputation was “photoshopped” from a stock photo.

This is unfortunate, as it opens the Health Department up to unnecessary criticism:

The American Beverage Association, which opposes the city’s efforts against sodas and fast food, called the advertisement overwrought. “This is another example of the ‘What can we get away with?’ approach that shapes these taxpayer-funded ad campaigns,” Chris Gindlesperger, the association’s director of communications, said in a statement.

May 9 2010

Food politics in the media: recent examples

I’ve collected a few video bits and other such things.  Can’t wait to share them:

Enjoy!  Happy Mother’s Day!

Mar 27 2010

Increasing meal size in the Last Supper?

As readers of this blog know by now, I very much admire and enjoy the work of Brian Wansink, the Cornell professor who studies environmental cues (like portion size) that trigger overeating.

In his latest publication, he teamed up with his brother, a professor of religion at Virginia Wesleyan, to analyze the sizes of the plates, foods, and meals illustrated in classic paintings of the Last Supper created from the year 1000 to 2000.

According to their analysis, portion sizes began expanding in about 1400.

Alas, their data points end in the 1700s.

Were they really not able to find modern depictions?

Art historians: get to work!

Professor Wansink talks about this study in the Atlantic Food Channel.  And for a more recent look at the increase in portion sizes, see the paper I wrote with Lisa Young in the American Journal of Public Health.

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!


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).