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Are inconsistent portion sizes making us fat?

TAGS: Nutrition
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Nutrition information on food and drink packaging is a key tool to help guide dietary choices. But a lack of standardisation can make calories per serving difficult to interpret.

According to the World Health Organisation, one in three 11-year-olds in Europe is obese. Many consumers say they are aiming to make healthier choices. 35% to 50% claim to monitor what they eat in order to manage their weight.

However, current labelling requirements lead to major discrepancies – sometimes even within the same brand.

“Portion sizes should help us to prevent over-consumption, but do they serve their purpose?” asked Dr Ewa Kania, Food and Nutrition Analyst.

Calorie labelling creates confusion

Speaking at the Hi Europe 2018 Conference, Kania pointed out that calorie labelling on breakfast cereals could be particularly confusing. Stated portion sizes on-pack range from 30-45 grams, despite the fact that an average consumer serving tends to be closer to 60 grams. In addition, calorie information related to cereals may or may not include milk.

Looking at six UK pizza brands, she said calories per 100 grams were generally between 250 and 300 calories. But the recommended portion sizes differed widely. Even within the same food brand suggested serving sizes may vary. Tyrell’s crisps, for example, have a recommended serving size ranging from 25 to 40 grams, depending on whether they are sold as part of a multipack (25 g), as a single serve bag (40 g), or in a bag intended for sharing (30 g).

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The industry awaits European Commission guidelines

A European Commission taskforce has been working for the past two years on a pan-European nutrition labelling system. It also covers standardised portion sizes within each product category. At the moment, nutritional information is required per 100 g, but this is often difficult to interpret, for example if a consumer buys a 330 g single-serve portion of food.

On the whole, industry agrees that on-pack calorie labelling has a role to play in ensuring consumers have the information needed to make healthy choices, but there is a great deal of division about the best approach. The European Food Information Council (EUFIC) has said there is a lack of evidence about how portion information might be used or interpreted by consumers, while FoodDrinkEurope has said it wants to restrict chocolate confectionery size to 250 calories.

Portion sizes reform as a solution?

Meanwhile, English government agency Public Health England wants a 20% calorie reduction within the most popular food categories by 2024. It cites portion sizes as a potential stumbling block, and has warned consumers that some foods and drinks commonly consumed as single servings have nutritional information presented per half pack.

“We have unrealistic, too small serving sizes, and inconsistent serving sizes,” said Kania.

She suggests a number of possible approaches, including mandatory standard serving sizes for product categories, and at least within brands. Other ideas include distinguishing between portions for weight loss and portions for general advice, or making a distinction between portion sizes for men and women.

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