Some time ago I asked on LinkedIn how it was possible for Americans to go grocery shopping and decide their purchases straight away, based only on the serving sizes printed on the nutrition facts table, not on a 100g food standard. While a few did agree with my view, the weirdest reply I got was that they would find looking only at 100g—and the metric system—an awkward reference guide.
As an Italian being accustomed to the 100g measure on nutrition facts labels, I reckon serving sizes can be misleading, placing one at risk of weight gain and nutritional deficit. Here’s what you should be focusing on instead.
Serving sizes are meant to reflect a realistic portion of the food that you would normally consume, but in reality the portion size (the amount you actually eat) and serving size don’t always match up since it’s up to food manufacturers to determine serving sizes.
Because food manufacturers define their own serving size parameters, serving sizes are often inconsistent between comparable products, even within the same brands, according to a research by The George Institute for Global Health. One breakfast cereal manufacturer may consider 30g to be a standard serving whereas another may consider it to be 50g.
According to The Checkout, an Australian consumer affairs television series, even different sized packages of the same branded products often carry different serving sizes:
And because daily intake (DI) percentages for energy, fat, salt, and sugar are based on serving sizes, it’s best to treat the associated health claims with caution.
The good news is food labels feature other much more helpful comparison tools to help you make more nutritious choices at the supermarket.
Instead, use the ‘per 100g’ column, which is juxtaposed with the ‘per serve’ column, to compare food products.
In an article in The New Daily last April, Kate Gudorf, a spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, praises the fact about Australian nutrition information panels that there is always that 100g column, so that’s where a consumer can look to compare one food item to the next. If one looks at the 100g column, he is comparing apples to apples. She recommends examining a range of similar products to get a sense of the differences in fat, sugar, salt, and energy content. Easy guidelines to aim for are: less than 10g of fat, 15g of sugar, and 120mg of salt per 100g.
The Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code requires that Nutrition Information Panels (NIP) include a ‘per 100g’ column:
Image courtesy of Aldo Mencaraglia from Melbourne, VIC (Australia)
Current EU Food Labeling Regulation No 1169/2011 states:
To facilitate the comparison of products in different package sizes, it is appropriate to retain the requirement that the mandatory nutrition declaration should refer to 100 g or 100 ml amounts and, if appropriate, to allow additional portion-based declarations.
While in Canada the use of both the Canadian Nutrition Facts Table (NFT) and a nutrition information table from another country together is not permitted, the US concedes flexibility in the presentation of their NFTs. The FDA allows another column of figures to declare the nutrient and food component information per 100 g or 100 mL, or per 1 oz or 1 fl oz of the food as packaged or purchased.
If food producers use wide discretionality to calculate serving sizes for packaged items, it would be honest to print a ‘per 100g’ column, whenever possible, to better inform consumers on the nutritional balance of what they are buying. After all, a healthy diet considers nutrients expressed as percentages. Therefore, it would make more sense to figure out how much of the healthy—or, better, those to limit—nutrients a food is loaded with.
In light of these considerations and the future trade partnerships between the EU, Canada, and the US, I would urge North American governments to provide the mandatory nutrition information with a supplementary 100g column on the food packages.