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Portion distortion: The EU must define realistic portion sizes, says MEP

Cookies sold in packs of three give calorie and nutrition information for a single cookie serving - but who only eats one cookie? Consumers are being mislead says MEP Mairead McGuinness and EU consumer group BEUC. © iStock

With obesity levels on the rise, MEP Mairead McGuinness has called on the Commission to set realistic portion sizes to stop consumers being misled over nutrition values. People don't calculate how many 100 g servings are in a bowl of soup, she says.

While many food manufacturers already provide nutrition information per serving size on a voluntary basis, EU legislation allows food companies to define their own serving sizes. This leads to widely differing portion sizes across food categories and brands, confused or misled consumers and expanding waistlines.

McGuinness, who is a member of the European People's Party and of Fine Gael in her native Ireland, wants Europe to follow the example of America where manufacturers are required to provide nutritional information based on serving size on the food packaging. In March this year she formally asked European Commission whether it plans on revising the current nutritional information given on packaging.

“Some people are very tuned into nutritional issues, while others are confused by conflicting advice they read in media reports and from ‘experts’. The best advice is to have a balanced diet, a little of everything and everything in moderation, however complying with that ‘common sense’ approach is not easy.

“Nutritional information based on portions may be more consumer friendly than when based on values per 100 g as it can be difficult to quantify 100 g of soup.  Indeed in reality, few of us measure or weight our food at meal time."

Consumers’ perceptions of what constitutes one serving size are skewed, and perhaps this should come as little wonder.

In 2013, on the back of UK government recommendations that food companies display nutrition values per portion on product packaging, the British Heart Foundation compared current portion sizes with those provided in a 1993 government publication, Food Portion Sizes. 

Although some single-serving portion sizes were the same – crisps, cheese and corn flakes for instance – others got smaller, and the past 20 years have seen increases across most categories.

A chicken curry and rice ready meal is 53% larger today than in 1993, meaning consumers are getting an additional 420 calories a pop. Average individual meat lasagne servings are 39% larger, and individual chicken pies 40% larger.

Meanwhile consumers may not be aware that a product actually contains multiple intended servings.

“A bottle of Coke has two 250 ml portions. [But] the majority of people will drink the entire 500 ml bottle and consider it as one portion. So portion size becomes an issue,” says McGuinness.

The Irish MEP’s calls are echoed by European consumer rights group BEUC, which wants the Commission to define realistic portion sizes and to require single-serving food products such as a cheeseburger or a pizza that tend to be eaten in one go, to have nutrition information for the whole product and not just a part of it. If a packet contains three cookies then consumers will likely eat all three in one go, it says.

A measured portion of optimism

McGuinness says she is looking forward to hearing the Commission’s response but her optimism in whether this will spur action is somewhat measured, especially in light of recent efforts to cut red-tape.

“The ethos of this Commission is to be ‘big on big things and small on small’.  In this spirit of reducing unnecessary administrative burden and producing clearer, simpler legislation, the Commission is undertaking fitness checks in the area of food and health, in particular on the General Food Law Regulation and the Regulation on nutrition and health claims.

“The Commission focuses on looking at European issues that require an EU response and I am not convinced that revising the current nutritional information guidelines or nutritional information on food packaging is high on the political agenda.”

There is no a simple solution to solving the obesity epidemic – most public health campaigners agree that multi-faceted approaches are needed - and each measure comes with its own set of pros and cons.

“Some organisations believe that a traffic light system would be most useful in communicating to consumers the nutritional value of food choices,” says McGuinness. “It certainly would be a quick glance way for consumers to make food choices, but it is a simplistic approach, suggesting food is either good or bad!

“Perhaps more emphasis should be focused on educating children from a young age to understand their daily dietary needs and how these can be met in different ways by different food choices.”

Clearly defined portions or restrictions on junk food marketing? Subsidies for healthy foods or taxes on unhealthy ones? 

FoodNavigator is hosting an online event on Obesity and Weight Management on 25 May where these issues will be debated by top industry players, academics, nutritionists and public health campaigners.

Sign up for free here and be part of the debate.

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