London, July 20: Food manufacturers have been accused of misleading consumers by downplaying the calorie and fat content of their products using “unrealistic” suggested serving sizes.
Health organisations say consumers are unwittingly eating more fats and sugars than they think because the suggested portion size on packaging — which tells them the calorie and fat content — is unrealistically small.
They are now calling for the government to impose guidelines on the industry. In the US, suggested serving sizes are laid down by the Food and Drug Administration but in Britain most manufacturers set their own.
Amanda Wynne, a spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, described food labelling as “confusing”. She said: “It is really important to look at how much you are eating and whether the portion size is realistic or underestimated to give a positive slant on fat and energy content.
“This is definitely a concern. Labelling can be difficult to interpret and a lot of people get very confused so it would be good to have a consistent approach to serving sizes. Guidelines would be useful but they would be difficult to legislate because the correct portion would be different for different people. The serving amount would vary between a petite woman and a 6 ft man.”
A snapshot survey by The Daily Telegraph last week found that a wide variety of products suggested servings that appeared on the small size. All the products gave nutritional information per 100 g alongside nutritional information “per serving”. The labelling on a 400 g can of Heinz cream of tomato soup suggested that a serving constituted 200 g.
A spokesperson for Heinz said the serving size was not misleading and was based on advice from nutritionalists. He said it had to take into account the fact that children and the elderly would have smaller portions.
“The serving size is an average size that will fit all consumers: that has to take into consideration anyone from the age of five to 70,” he said. However, Heinz sells a range of soups “For One” that each contains 300 g.
The packing of a Waitrose quiche lorraine highlights the nutritional information “per 1/6 quiche”. Despite the implication that a sixth of a quiche — some 96 g — is considered a serving, the illustration shows a slice as being one-quarter of a quiche.
A Waitrose spokesperson denied that the nutritional information was misleading. “Everything on the box is factually correct and the information is 100 per cent accurate,” he said. “Our labelling is upfront and honest.”
The survey also found that on a 750 g packet of Nestle Shreddies, the nutritional information given was for a suggested serving of just 45 g, together with 125 ml of semi-skimmed milk.
Nestle said: “This is based on what has been found to be an average serving poured by consumers. The reason this average serving size varies from brand to brand reflects the relative density of the cereals — muesli, flaked (cornflakes) or puffed (wheat or rice), for example.”
Dr Ian Campbell of the National Obesity Forum, which aims to raise awareness of the health risks associated with obesity, said: “This is something that I have long suspected. We need to move toward tighter regulation and work out the best way to publish information on packets. This could certainly be done better.”
Neville Rigby, the director of policy and public affairs at the International Obesity TaskForce, added: “It is difficult for consumers to make any sensible judgement based on the serving information on food labels: the information is arbitrary and depends on what suits manufacturers. The public has been given a smokescreen of information on what constitutes low fat and reduced fat and it is time that we took a more sensible approach.”