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Behavioral scientists: Changing serving sizes on Nutrition Facts label could have unintended consequences

By Elaine Watson+

21-Jul-2014
Last updated on 21-Jul-2014 at 17:18 GMT

Could new serving sizes on Nutrition Facts label backfire?

FDA proposals to change the way serving sizes are calculated to better reflect real-life eating behavior could encourage some people to eat even more unless the wording is changed or the move is accompanied by strong consumer education, behavioral science experts have warned.

Under the proposed changes - part of a wide-ranging overhaul of the Nutrition facts label  - serving sizes in many cases will go up, so a serving size would not, for example, be half a bagel, or half a can of energy drink.

While the changes are “appropriate”, says the Behavioral Science and Regulation Group (a collection of students and fellows at Harvard’s Law, Kennedy, and Business Schools), they are also risky given that more than half of consumers perceive the term ‘serving size’ to be a recommended  serving size, not the reference amount customarily consumed (RACC).

So where serving sizes are increased to reflect typical consumption habits, this “could lead [some consumers] to eat more than they otherwise would… because these consumers believe that the FDA has implicitly endorsed the serving size as healthy”, warns the group.

More than half of consumers perceive the term ‘serving size’ to be a recommended  serving size, not an amount customarily consumed

So what is the alternative, given that current (unrealistically small) serving sizes are arguably just as misleading (who really eats half a muffin washed down with half a can of Monster Energy)?

One option worth considering is ditching the word 'serving' and replacing it with something else, suggests the group: “We suggest that the word ‘serving’ and the phrase ‘serving size’ be changed to avoid an implied endorsement. Changing ‘serving’ to a word that does not suggest the context of a meal, like ‘unit’ or ‘quantity,’ may mitigate the endorsement effect.”

Alternatively, it says, the FDA could consider removing the lines that mention ‘serving’ and adding, next to the words ‘Amount per ___,’ the fraction of the container that the RACC represents (eg. ‘Amount per ⅔ cup (⅛ of container)’).

American Diabetes Association: We urge FDA to conduct consumer education

While most other commentators are happy with the word ‘serving’ given that it is more consumer-friendly than most alternatives, several also express concerns about possible unintended consequences of the proposed changes.

The American Diabetes Association, for example, says: “Ensuring the Nutrition Facts label information reflects actual consumer eating habits will help individuals fully understand the nutritional content of the food they are consuming… [but] we urge FDA to conduct consumer education to ensure these changes to the RACCs are not misunderstood by consumers as recommendations to consume larger portions.”

Weight Watchers - which supports the move - also notes that it could “create the impression that the larger portion size is the proper portion size.”

Click HERE to read more about portion sizes. 

Click HERE to read all the comments in the docket on serving sizes. 

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