Serious about weight loss - then check your labels: not all serves are equal!

Written by Catherine Saxelby on Tuesday, 13 January 2009.
Tagged: convenience, dieting, measures, portion size, standard serves

Serious about weight loss - then check your labels: not all serves are equal!

When it comes to serve sizes on food labels, you'll find not all serves equal! Read on to see how you can avoid being fooled when it comes to how big that portion that you're eating really is. If you're trying to eat a healthy, balanced diet or stick to a healthy weight loss regime this is "must have" information.


The "light bulb" moment!

I was checking out potato crisps the other day in the supermarket and I spotted an odd thing. I was looking at two brands of crisps, in the large 200g bags - the ones you'd buy if you had friends coming around for a drink.

Turning to the labels on the back, I found both had the same content of fat - around 25 per cent. Same size pack, same fat count but then I noticed that one brand would give me 14 grams of fat if I ate a serve, while the other would give me half of that - only 7 grams!

How could this be? Why the difference? Closer inspection revealed that one brand had decided that there were 4 serves in the pack (each a large 50 grams) while the other brand opted for 8 serves per pack, each weighing only 25 grams!

What is a serving size?

Serving sizes are listed on all food labels.

  • A breakfast cereal tells you a serve is one cup or 30 grams. Some opt for 40 grams or even 45 grams to make their figures look better!
  • A carton of milk will list a serve as a glass or 200ml
  • A tub of margarine uses one teaspoon or 5 grams.

Now these aren't recommendations of how much you should eat, but are simply the quantity of food on which the product's nutritional analysis is based.


Who determines serve sizes?

It's up to each individual manufacturer. You'd think that they'd base their suggested serves on an average quantity; the amount people normally eat at one sitting. And when I started my career as a dietitian, they did. All the breakfast cereals had a standard serve of one cup or 30 grams. All the slices of bread weighed around the same - 30g, and all the chocolate bars weighed 50 grams.


Manipulating the data and the customer

Cereal serve sizesThese days I suspect serve sizes are "adjusted" to reflect the product in its best light. So when two cereal companies want to out do one another, they increase the serve size of their high-fibre cereal (a 45 gram bowl gives you 50 per cent more fibre than the standard 30 gram bowl) so they can claim "highest in fibre".

Or they decrease their serve size (like the chips mentioned above) to reduce the fat quantity per serve.

At the other extreme, many dietitians are annoyed that a 200g tub of dairy dessert defines its serve as only 100 grams. Who eats half a carton?

Time for standard serves

Healthy eating should be easy and I think it's time we had standard serve sizes for every food to help us better understand what we're putting into our bodies. That would eliminate these sorts of discrepancies. With all the super sizing, you'd be surprised at the variation. An individual serve of popcorn, for instance, is supposed to be a cup of 55 g but the movie popcorn you buy today comes in huge buckets containing 200g, 300g and 500g! A serve of soft drink would be 200ml, not the hefty 600ml buddy bottles or the 900ml fast food cartons.

What to do in the meantime?

In the meantime, check to see if the amount you normally eat is similar to the serving size on the label and when comparing products don't rely on the "suggested serve sizes" compare the data for 100g or 100ml to see which one is better for you. Measure your portions if you want know how much fat, sugar, salt and kilojoules you are consuming.

Downloads / Fact Sheets

Download my helpful Fact Sheet on watching your portion sizes!