Serving Sizes in Packaged Food and Drink

April 2019

As nutrition legislation continues to evolve, it is critical to evaluate factors that can promote or hamper its efficacy. Serving sizes are an intrinsic part of people’s eating habits and have been proven to influence calorie consumption. This briefing explores suggested serving sizes on packaged food and drink products and the existing initiatives around this subject.

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Key Findings

Without standardisation of serving sizes, anti-obesity nutrition initiatives cannot work

Much of the current legislation around nutrition is intrinsically tied to serving sizes, and cannot work effectively in fighting the obesity crisis unless serving sizes are standardised.

When regulating serving sizes, packaging and nutritional value should be considered together

Serving sizes are determined mostly by pack type and size, calorie/nutrient content of the food and the legislative landscape concerning serving sizes.

Serving sizes are often used to make high-calorie foods appear healthier

Manufacturers tend to inversely relate the serving size to the nutritional density of the product, so the higher the caloric value, the lower the serving sizes suggested on the pack, to give the product more health appeal to consumers.

Low-calorie foods confuse consumers about healthy portion sizes

Low-calorie alternatives can be consumed in excess because of their lower energy density. This creates confusion for the consumer with regard to what a healthy portion is.

Packaging inhibits the possibility of portion control in packaged food

As consumers demand a wide range of solutions for different consumption occasions (from on-the-go single-serve packs all the way to multipacks), manufacturers deliver a wide range of pack options, which in turn makes it challenging to standardise, regulate and unify serving sizes across both food and drinks.


Key findings

Weight Management: A Global Problem

Convenience of packaged food vs health benefits of fresh food
Negligible excess calories can pave the way to weight gain
Foodservice is a significant contributor to daily calorie intake
Portion control can contribute to global weight management

Serving Sizes and Calories: Context

Serving sizes determine how much we eat
Serving sizes are there to guide, yet they come with a lot of confusion
Portion sizes: a tool for public health vs a marketing tool for the industry
Conflicting demands result in struggling nutrition legislation

Legislation and Initiatives

Selected serving size legislation and initiatives globally
Warning labels inform consumers; yet their variety causes confusion
The Australian government reviews serving sizes
The US emphasises that portion sizes directly impact calorie intake
Mexico penalises high-calorie foods with tax
The EU continues to apply voluntary guides only
The industry steps into the portioning initiative arena

Serving Sizes: Challenges

Free-from can mean far more calories
Serving size discrepancies are vast across the ready meals landscape
Unstandardised portioning leads to significant variations in energy levels
Inconsistent portioning within the brand: Variety or confusion
Unrealistic portion sizes to make nutritional levels more appealing

Serving Sizes: Health vs. Pack Variety

A portion size can determine eligibility for a health claim in the EU
Smaller portion sizes make products appear healthier
Where portions are regulated, packaging fails to fit the purpose
Serving sizes are indirectly driven by consumer demand
Single-serve meal formats are on the rise alongside mobile lifestyles
The bigger, the better – consumers want fun and freedom

Final Recommendations

Key questions to consider to make serving sizes meaningful and effective
Potential future strategies and food for thought


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