Serving sizes need updating, group says

Labels on some foods understate the amount of fat, calories and sodium in those products by claiming smaller serving sizes than consumers will actually eat, the Center for Science in the Public Interest says.

Most consumers, for example, would eat a whole can of soup at a time. The nutrition information on the label, however, is based on a serving of one cup, a little less than half a can.

Area residents underlined the group’s concerns. Asked how much sodium a can of soup contains, most respondents checked the label and assumed one serving size would cover the contents of the can.

“It says it's 690 milligrams of sodium, that's a bit much,” one woman said, before discovering the whole can contains more than twice that amount.

The group argues that those small serving sizes make it more difficult for consumers to understand how much calories or fat they take in.

The serving sizes are based on Food and Drug Administration guidelines from the 1970s, the group says. On its website, the FDA explains serving sizes are standardized to make it easier to compare different foods, say two cans of soup of different weights. The agency has a whole online guide to help consumers understand food labels.

{ }{ }{ } { }{ }{ } The FDA offers an online guide to help consumers understand food labels. (Image from the FDA website)

The Center for Science in the Public Interest argues serving sizes should be updated.

“The FDA should define serving sizes to reflect what consumers actually eat, as the law requires, not what the soup industry pretends that they eat,” CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson wrote in a statement on the group’s website.

Soup isn’t the only food to draw the group’s criticism: Ice cream or creamer also assume “ridiculously tiny” serving sizes, it says (Then again, you probably shouldn’t eat that whole tub of Häagen-Dazs Vanilla ice cream anyway).

Cooking spray is another offender. The serving size on the label claims zero calories, but if you use enough to cover a frying pan, you’ll end up with a 50-calorie serving.

"We want a more realistic serving size one that really matches what people are likely to consume," Jacobson said.

The advocates have sent a letter to the FDA (pdf) asking them to update the sizes. Unless that happens, consumers will have to do the math before they eat.