The UK’s weird portion sizes make no sense. What went wrong?

A smoothie bottle contains 2.2 portions, while the recommended 30 grams of cereal barely fills the bottom of a bowl. Here’s how food packaging got out of step with portion sizes

Ever since Boots first pioneered the art of offering a sandwich, snack and drink together for a bargain price, the UK has been infatuated with the “meal deal”. Every week, twice a week, a third of us walk into a supermarket and hand over £3 in exchange for this holy trinity of lunchtime sustenance.

Yet while the “deal” part is self-explanatory, nothing is as it seems when it comes to the “meal”. You might be under the impression, after consuming a chicken and bacon sandwich, a small pack of Cool Original Doritos, and a Naked smoothie, that you’ve eaten one meal: lunch. In reality, you’ve just eaten 5.8 servings of food.

According to the back of a 55g packet of Doritos, 30g constitutes one serving. That means that just over halfway through your lunchtime snack, you should roll up the rest of the bag and save it for another day. A 360ml bottle of Naked smoothie – in an act of treacherous betrayal to anyone who’s ever thought “Ooh, go on then, I’ll be healthy today” – contains somewhere between two or three portions of the drink.

The closer you look at the serving suggestions on supermarket foods, the more confusing things become. If you fancy some Smarties, then you better count out 16 of them, and – it’s not too late to look away – one serving of Cadbury Fingers equals just four biscuits. When it comes to microwaveable ready meals, more often than not you’re only supposed to eat half, and anyone who’s weighed out the recommended 30g of cereal will despair at how it barely covers the bottom of the bowl.

So why exactly are serving suggestions so out of step with what we actually eat? It doesn’t help that the food we eat has been changing – a 2016 report from Consensus Action on Salt and Health found (perhaps unsurprisingly) that the level of salt in some common foods had crept up over a period of six years. And while some of our food is getting worse for us, health guidelines are encouraging us to cut down. In 2015 the World Health Organisation recommended that simple sugars – the kind found in fruit juices or processed food and drinks – should make up less than 10 per cent of our daily calorie intake, and ideally be half that. In the UK at the time of the recommendation, the average adult intake was closer to 17 per cent.

Yet this doesn’t explain why serving suggestions are often so strange – like a 330ml bottle of Innocent smoothie being set at 2.2 portions, or the recommended serving of a Galaxy chocolate bar being 22g. We’re meant to cut down on unhealthy food, sure, but how come manufacturers have opted for confusing portioning recommendations instead of just serving food in healthy(-ish) sizes?

The explanation may lie in food labelling laws. As of 2014, the EU regulation on the provision of food information to consumers (EU FIC) has made it mandatory for companies to provide “back of pack” nutritional information per 100ml or 100g. This allows consumers to compare two products like-for-like. Yet the regulation also states that brands can also voluntarily add their own “per portion” values to nutritional tables.

“While industry standards have been set for the portion sizes of some foods, such as cereals, the government has not set any portion size labelling standards,” explains Dr Lucy Chambers, a senior scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation. “There is debate around whether portion sizes on-pack should represent what people actually consume or what they should consume and it’s not clear which of these two types of information better supports healthier choices.”

The government’s serving size recommendation for juice is 150ml, which explains how a 330ml bottle of smoothie can be 2.2 drinks. But for other foods, which lack a government set standard for serving sizes, brands rely on non-governmental organisations and healthcare professionals to advise them. For reference, many use a 2002 photographic guide to food portion sizes created by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries. Serving suggestions aren’t totally lawless, then, and the Department for Health and Social Care warns that misleading labels (like claiming a pizza serves 30 people) can be reported to Trading Standards.

Yet even though companies aren’t taking things to the furthest possible extreme, there are still problems with the rules and regulations around portion sizes, says dietician Luci Daniels. In 2013, Daniels helped author a British Heart Foundation report, Portion Distortion, which argued that food companies need to make changes to ensure that “portion sizes are standardised, clearly labelled and easy to understand”. Yet companies continue to set their own sizes, perhaps because it lets them sugarcoat the unhealthiness of their products.

“It looks better if you declare that a portion of crisps, or chocolate, or something else is 100 calories rather than 200 calories,” Daniels says. “The food industry perhaps isn’t being as open and honest and realistic as it could be.” While a small 300ml bottle of Tropicana – the kind you would buy in a meal deal – looks like a single portion, a footnote at the bottom of the nutritional table states, “This pack contains two servings”. “People look at calories, but they probably won’t look at the very small font that says per 15g, or per five pieces, or whatever,” Daniels says. “It’s wrong, because it’s very misleading.”

Strange serving suggestions cause further problems when they’re used in conjunction with traffic light labelling, a voluntary scheme which was introduced in 2013. These colour-coded front-of-pack labels reveal at a glance whether a product contains low (green), medium (amber), or high (red) levels of your guideline daily amounts of calories, fat, saturated fat, salt, and sugar. While the colour coding on the labels is based on 100g or 100ml of the product, confusingly, the nutritional information (such as the grams of fat or the calories) is based on the portion size. This means the percentage that the fat or salt contributes to your recommended intake is also set per portion. On a pack of 10 Mini Sugared Doughnuts from Sainsbury’s, the traffic light label refers to just one doughnut; on a pack of Asda Pork Cocktail Sausages, the label refers to “each 1/9” of a pack.

“The calories per half bottle or quarter bar of chocolate or half bag of crisps aren’t sometimes that helpful, or in large enough font for people to realise that if they have the whole bottle or packet they’re getting twice or three times or five times the calories,” Daniels says.

But hang on, isn’t the problem that we’re all greedy guts, eating a fifth of a packet of cocktail sausages when a ninth will do? Daniels’ 2013 report found that many portion sizes have increased dramatically from those recommended in the 1990s – a portion of garlic bread is now 30 per cent larger, while biscuits are on average 17 per cent bigger. Doesn’t it make sense, then, that the front of a pack of Oreos provides nutritional information for just one biscuit? Yet while the onus is on individuals to control their eating habits, a psychological phenomenon known as “unit bias” explains why we’re compelled to eat a whole pack of crisps or drink a whole bottle of smoothie even when we should technically only have half.

“What we eat in any particular meal is to a substantial degree determined by what’s in front of us,” explains Paul Rozin, a psychologist who published a paper on unit bias in 2006. Rozin and his colleagues found that no matter how large or small a particular item is – for example, a sandwich or an ice cream – we tend to view it as one portion. “We tend to eat one of things, if it’s a reasonably big thing,” Rozin explains.

Rozin says “if it’s an appropriate time and you’re given a pile of food you like, you’ll eat it whether it’s 15 per cent more or 15 per cent less food”, meaning that companies arguably need to take responsibility and make their packaging reflect their portions. If a 360ml smoothie bottle contains 2.2 servings, why not just sell one portion in a smaller bottle?

When asked about this, a spokesperson for Innocent Drinks says its bottles are resealable and its recommendations are in line with the UK’s five-a-day guidelines. “We are aware the recommended serving size is smaller than the bottle size, however, we think this is the right size for our drinkers and we provide all the information drinkers need so they can make up their own mind on how much they’d like to drink. And having a bigger bottle is more sustainable than having two smaller bottles,” they say.

Rozin says another option is that companies delineate portions more clearly to try and convince us all to overcome or unit bias. If a packet of Smarties declared in large letters, rather than small ones, that we should only eat 16, our behaviour might change accordingly.

“We had another study where we had people eating a tube of potato chips [like Pringles] while watching a movie. If we put a red one every tenth chip, we cut down their intake quite a bit, because you were basically giving them a signal that this is a portion,” Rozin explains.

While recommended serving sizes might aim to help us look after our health, then, at present they’re not best placed to make us truly change our habits. The fact that they’re often so shocking when a consumer reads the label (four chocolate fingers! Four!) reveals just how ineffective they are – it can only shock because the package is so much larger than the portion. Yet while things remain as they are, the onus is arguably on us to count out our Smarties, weigh our squares of Galaxy, and save that 0.2ml of smoothie for another day.

All Rights Reserved for Amelia Tait

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