When it comes to food – what is a serving size?

 In Nutrition, Wellness

Ever picked up two similar food products and tried to compare the nutrition information (the little panels on the packaging that include the information on fat, sugar, salt etc) on both of them? Chances are you have looked at the ‘serving size’ suggestion made by the food manufacturer.

But what actually makes a ‘serving size’? Well, now that is a great question!

A serving size, according to the government body that governs food labels in Australia (Food Standards Australia and New Zealand) the definition of a serving size is ‘determined by the food business.’ This means there are no standard measures for what a serving size actually is. Now, this makes it very hard sometimes to know how much to eat, especially if the food is packaged in what looks like a ‘single serve’ (or meant to be eaten all at once by one person). Because sometimes this isn’t the case – while some foods look like they are for one, they may not actually be appropriate for good health to be for one.  

Serving Size vs Portion Size

The ‘serve size’ is an important consideration if you are looking at the information in the nutrition panel and you are trying to understand how much energy, sugar, salt etc is in the food.  While having information about the serving size is important information to have on food, so you can know from a nutrition perspective what it contains, it is important to remember this is just a guidance from the manufacturer only. It is a serving ‘suggestion’ – you should still work out what is appropriate for you to eat for your individual circumstances. What you then serve yourself is called a ‘portion’.

Confused yet? Well, you are not alone. Many people are confused about the difference between a ‘serve’ and a ‘portion’. But let’s take a look at an example from my recent trip to the supermarket.

A ‘Snack Pack’ of Pasta for one… or is it?

When walking through the supermarket one night this week I found a great example of when a manufacturer sets a serving size that for many people is way too big a portion. I picked up a package of macaroni and cheese – you know the type that has dry pasta and powdered sauce so all you need to do is add milk and butter and voila you have mac n cheese.

Now, this packet of pasta was labelled as a ‘snack pack’.

Being the food nerd I am, I obviously picked it up to see what made it a ‘snack pack’ as to me it looked quite large. The first thing I checked was the ‘serve size’. The manufacturer stated that a whole package of this product was ‘one serve’ – suggesting the whole package was for one person to have all at once. Now that serve provides 1220kJ per dry weight i.e. without the milk etc added to it. And then when you make up the product as specified on the label it contains 1460kJ of energy, 4.4g saturated fat, 9.5g of sugar and 1200mg of sodium. 

What does this look like in terms of food? Well, this snack pack of pasta for one has the same energy as around 3 apples or 2.4 tubs of individual low-fat yoghurt tubs.

Would you eat 3 apples or 2.5 tubs of yoghurt for a ‘snack’? No, I didn’t think so. It also had around 1 tsp of saturated fat, almost 2 tsp of sugar and over 50% of the recommended upper daily limit for salt intake.

So what does the product look like to me? Well with nutrition information the product presents more like a meal than a snack – well a meal in terms of energy content but without any vegetables or lean protein sources, which isn’t ideal.

From that example it shows that just because it is listed as ‘snack pack’ by the manufacturer, doesn’t mean you can assume this is the case – it might still be too large a portion for you.

Want some more advice?

Depending on your personal needs such as medical history, lifestyle, current diet etc you may need smaller or larger portion sizes than those listed as a ‘serve size’. As dietitians, we sit down with you and work out what your individual needs are, to make specific recommendations just for you. So if you would like to talk to a dietitian about what portion sizes your body needs please contact us.

A blog post by Nutted Out Nutrition’s dietitian, Christie Bennett APD

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