Serving Size Matters

Suppose you’re the person responsible for designing the nutrition labels on the side of food packaging in the United States.  And suppose you can only include one category on the label.  That is, the one category to best enable the average consumer to decide whether to purchase a particular product or not.

How about if you could choose three nutritional metrics, or five?  On what bases do you weigh one measure of a food’s nutritional composition against another?  On a piece of packaging with only so much space, how do you ascertain which stats are essential health information and which are disposable?

Luckily for us, we have the Food and Drug Administration to do that job for us, and this past week it did precisely that in uncommonly sweeping fashion.

For the first time in some two decades, the FDA has proposed tweaking both the appearance and substance of those black and white rectangles that tell us, more or less, what it is that we’re about to eat.

Most dramatic among these recommendations include the physical enlarging of a given food’s calorie count, the addition of the total amount of the item’s “added sugars” and, perhaps most fully reflective of all of the realities of contemporary American diets, the altering (in some cases) of what constitutes one “serving” of the culinary trinket in question.

Of these three actions, the first underlines the fundamental importance of the calorie as a basic building block in the science of food; the second affirms the (relatively) newly-understood impact of sugar in many Americans’ ill health.

And the third?  Well, it just goes to show that when it comes to shoveling grub, we gentle giants simply don’t know when to stop.

The question, it seems to me, is whether we treat our country’s well-established portion problems as inevitable and, in any case, how (and if) to meaningfully correct course.

“Things like the size of a muffin have changed so dramatically,” said FDA commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg.  “It is important that the information on the nutrition fact labels reflect the realities in the world today.”

Well, yes and no.

Sure, the person has not yet been found who is not willing to down a full 20-ounce bottle of Dr. Pepper in the course of a single meal (or gulp), rather than capping it after eight ounces, as the bottle advises.  And yes, the half-cup of ice cream that has long constituted an official “serving” is hardly enough to reach the top of the cone.

Hell, plop a massive, steaming basin of linguini with marinara in front of me, shut the door and return an hour later, and you’ll find an empty pot and an extremely satisfied blogger slumped over blissfully in his chair.  Seven servings per package?  My ass.

So we eat more than the FDA has long presumed.  However, that doesn’t mean we should, and it doesn’t mean our gluttonous habits should be tacitly endorsed through a readjustment of the nutrition tables.

We are told that food labels are mandated to reflect how much Americans “actually eat.”  But if the amount of food Americans actually eat is the whole problem in the first place, what exactly do we expect to accomplish by re-calibrating the labels to bow to this “reality”?  Does it not amount to effectively moving the goal posts for the worse—of turning “too much” into “the correct amount”?  Might this not produce the opposite of its intended result—namely, that people will regard their already outsized portion sizes as a baseline and opt to supersize even more?

Yes, muffins have gotten bigger, as the FDA commissioner put it.  Why throw up our hands and shrug, “Well, that’s now the accepted size of a muffin”?  Instead, why not stand firm and say, “That muffin is too goddamned big and could easily be cut in half”?

Human beings do not need to consume as much as Americans do in order to go about their daily lives—as demonstrated by pretty much every other country on Earth.

This being the case, and so long as “official” serving sizes of most items are arbitrary, anyway, why not err on the side of scaling them down?  Isn’t the point of being a nanny state to nudge people to behave better, not to coddle them?

This week we happily learned that the obesity rate of children aged 2 to 5 fell 43 percent over the past decade.  Apart from anything else, this demonstrates that America’s fatness epidemic is not insurmountable.  Course corrections are possible, after all.

If we can nearly halve the prevalence of obesity in young kids in just ten years, imagine what we could accomplish for those of us old enough to glance at a nutrition label and understand what it says.

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