Stirring Words


Food labels: detecting food portion distortion
Joan Ransley ()

1398_916722.jpgThe European Food Information Council (EUFIC) carried out an online survey in 6 EU countries to find out how consumers interpret portion information on food and drink labels. The research was conducted in collaboration with Dr Monique Raats, co-director of the Food, Consumer Behaviour and Health Research Centre at the University of Surrey. EUFIC has produced a webinar of these initial results, available at Here Guild member Joan Ransley comments on the study.

It is seven years since Super Size Me hit cinema screens all over the world and started a heated debate about food portion size and the havoc junk food can wreak in our bodies. Images of giant-sized burgers, colas and shakes made us sit up and think seriously about whether fast food was safe to eat – and, if we dared, in what portion size.

Super Size Me had a profound effect on McDonald’s, Burger King and other fast food chains, which reduced supersized portion sizes, and a more subtle effect on other sectors of the food industry.

One effect was portion size proliferation. A Food Standard Agency investigation in 2008 revealed that many products once thought of as a standard size were now available in multiple sizes. For example, Mars bars could be bought as a standard 63.5g bar, an 85g ‘sharing pack’ or a 54g bar as part of a multipack. Even scones were not immune. A 60g supermarket scone could more than double in size to 150g if bought in a café. The same was true of ready meals and pizza.

The FSA discovered not so much that portion sizes had supersized over the years but that many foods, once only sold as a standard portion, were now offered as share packs, multipacks and king sizes.

It could be argued the availability of multiple portions sizes gives consumers greater choice. If you are really hungry, or play rugby for England, you can choose the larger portion with impunity. It’s your choice.

The choice is not, however, usually that straightforward. Often the only choice is the large one, or the tricky one – deciding whether to restrict ourselves to a small portion presented in a multi pack, or to eat two and later regret having eaten more than we meant to.

The truth is that we can only really make informed choices about whether a portion of processed food meets our nutritional needs if we know something about its ingredients, the portion size, and how this squares up with our daily requirement for energy and other nutrients. Without this, even those with good intentions fall prey to what psychologists call passive over-consumption. That is to say, they eat more than intended, particularly in the form of fat and sugar. Our appetite is not a fail-proof mechanism and studies have repeatedly shown people eat larger portion sizes if served them, particularly if it is deliciously sweet and pumped full of fat.

With this in mind the European Food Information Council (EUFIC) reported recently on how well consumers use the nutrition and food-portion information provided on food labels. Or, putting it into terms we can all understand: ‘Do food labels really stop and make us think about how much we are eating before we neck a huge bar of Galaxy while waiting for a train?’

The investigation looked at the labelling of nineteen foods including ready meals, soup, pizza, breakfast cereals, cooked sliced meat, nuts and crisps, ice cream, chocolate bars, dried fruits, biscuits, cheese, confectionery, takeaway burgers, sandwiches, yoghurt, condiments, soft drinks, bread and spreads.

These foods are nearly all high-risk in terms of their nutritional value and their potential to damage health. Many of them are ‘energy-dense’ rather than ‘nutrient dense.’ They have loads of calories per gram instead of loads of nutrients per gram, and as such need clear labels.

As a starting point the research showed unequivocally that most men and women have a clear understanding of how many calories they should eat in a day. Good news. It also revealed that price and sell-by dates were the information consumers looked for most. Consumers were divided with regard to how important they found food portion size information, with about half of all consumers not finding it very useful or relevant.

Consumers found it really useful when planning meals and deciding how many servings a product provides if information is shown per portion and per100g/100ml. ‘Per pack’ information was considered better for ready meals, pizza, yoghurt, confectionary and crisps or ‘Per food item’ if the pack splits into single units  e.g. biscuits, sliced bread, sliced meat, takeaway sweets. The100g/100ml was the preferred format for cheese, soft drinks, soup and condiments.

Dr Raats and her team managed to flummox most people when they challenged them to perform some nutritional calculations. If the nutrition information was provided per 100g, people struggled to work out how many grams of fat were in a 30g portion of a product but managed better if the nutrients were given per portion as well.

Interestingly, the research showed consumers capable of supersizing portion sizes themselves. When shown increasingly large packs of lasagne and chicken nuggets, there was a corresponding increase in consumer’s perception of portion size.

What this research has highlighted is that for many processed and ready made foods, the savvy eater needs and wants clear nutrition and portion size information on packs of food in the high energy-dense section of the supermarket, cafe or fast food outlet.

Of course we all aspire to making our own food all of the time but the reality for most of us is that from time to time, we just have to look at that label. The clearer it is the better – and then we have a choice.

Dr Joan Ransley is a visiting lecturer in Human Nutrition at the University of Leeds and a freelance writer. She is membership secretary and one of the workshop coordinators for the GFW.






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