Ice Cream Cones

Supersizing Nutrition Facts Labels

How much is a serving of ice cream: a half cup or a full cup? Right now, Nutrition Facts labels assume it’s a half cup, but new labels will set it at a full cup. The intent is to have labels reflect the amount in a serving that people normally eat. Proposed revisions to Nutrition Facts labels will make changes in serving sizes for many foods in a similar way. But a new study published in Appetite suggests that this change may have the effect of driving people to serve and eat even larger portions than they already do.

New Nutrition Facts LabelIt’s hard to think of a more striking example of unintended consequences for nutrition labeling.

Steven Dallas, Peggy Liu, and Peter Ubel conducted a series of studies to examine how serving sizes on Nutrition Facts labels influence consumer behavior. They found that new labeling with larger portion sizes may influence people to buy more, eat larger portions, and serve larger portions to others.

It seemed like a good idea. People are now eating larger servings than they used to. So the information about how many calories are in a serving has become understated. Better information about calories in a typical serving might make people more cautious.

Nope. It’s just permission to buy more and serve more. If someone thought that doubling the calories and serving size for ice cream would cause people to think twice before eating it all, they were likely wrong.

We may be on our way to more portion distortion.

Click here to read the study, here to read more in the Washington Post, and here to read more about portion sizes.

Ice Cream Cones, photograph © Thomas Hawk / flickr

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August 30, 2015

2 Responses to “Supersizing Nutrition Facts Labels”

  1. August 30, 2015 at 2:31 pm, Le Moore said:

    I would be interested in knowing who was involved in the series of studies. Just people walking into the grocery store? Bariatric patients? Mothers with multiple children? People affected by obesity? Men who are grocery shopping? There is such a wide variety of people, just as there would be a wide variety of results. I know myself, as well as many other people, have learned to read food labels and have been very frustrated with the serving amounts. I believe that people need to be educated in order to make healthy decisions about food they eat. People who ignore or don’t know how to read the food labels now, will more than likely not change their behavior unless they are taught/shown how to do this. Let’s work together to help share this information ( social media, the medical field, television commercials, large posters in the grocery stores and schools, etc.)

    • August 30, 2015 at 4:35 pm, Ted said:

      This is the right question, Le. The participants in all four studies were a convenience sample of adult men and women with average BMI’s (self-reported) in the healthy range, but extending into the range of obesity and even severe obesity. And naturally, the real world will be much more complex than this series of controlled studies, as you point out.

      With all that said, these observations are pretty compelling to me. It makes sense that people would look at serving sizes as a reference for what is a “normal” (and thus ok) amount to eat. Unintended consequences are everywhere when it comes to nutrition labeling. It goes with the territory. We can’t be paralyzed by them, but we do have to be vigilant.