One day in the grocery store checkout line, I did what I often do: check calorie counts for various foods. This time, picking up a "giant-sized" popular candy bar.
Incredibly, the label said it contained just 160 calories. How on earth can that be, I wondered? Regular-sized candy bars typically have more than 200 calories. Was this some breakthrough in sweets we hadn't heard about?
Then I noticed that the calorie count was based on there being three "servings" in the package.
As the American obesity crisis continues, this kind of misleading information is finally getting the attention it deserves. In fact, this week, the Food and Drug Administration is holding public hearings on a proposed new labeling rule that would provide consumers trying to watch their weight some much needed help.
Anyone who has paid attention to health and nutrition in recent years knows portion sizes have grown considerably, right along with the country's waistlines.
The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute notes, for example, that a typical pizza slice was 250 calories two decades ago. Today, it's 425 calories.
A plain bagel used to weigh in at 140 calories. Today, it's twice as large and contains more than double the calories. McDonald's Big Mac seemed big years ago, but looks tiny in comparison with the remarkably huge burgers sold at many fast-food chains these days.
I could go on for a long, long time, but you get the picture.
Even plate sizes have increased, with dinner plates going from 10 inches to 12 inches over the past three decades. And with that, comes greater food consumption.
One study, for example, split campers into two groups, with one getting larger bowls than the other. Not only did those given the larger bowls consume more cereal -- 16% more, in fact -- they estimated that they'd eaten 7 percent less than those using smaller bowls.
"This suggests that not only could large dinnerware cause us to serve and eat more; it can do so without us noticing and trick us into believing we have eaten less," noted a report from Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab.
The gradual climb in portion and plate sizes, and the obvious contribution both are making to the nation's obesity crisis is bad enough.
What makes the situation much worse is what's been deemed "portion distortion."
Food labels can make things even more distorted. That's because the labels use federal guidelines to determine serving size, based on what the government calls "reference amounts customarily consumed" (RACC).
The problem is that as "single serving" bottles, bags and boxes got bigger, these official serving sizes didn't. So a bigger bag of chips or a larger bottle of soda, or any other food that's obviously meant to be a single serving, technically contains two or three or more servings.
Here's the catch: most people feel compelled to finish what they've started. Waste not want not, and all that. Normally, it's a good thing, but these days, it's a growing problem and we're biased toward perpetuating it. After all, we tend to eat the whole of something, somewhat independent of the size. So if you have food packaged in a three-serving container, you're likely to consume the whole thing, far more than you would be prone to consume three single serving containers. As an NIH abstract explains, it seems we're biased toward assuming the provided unit is the norm and is appropriate in size.
Consider what this means to consumers. Go into a convenience store, and you'll find many soft drinks now sold in 24-ounce bottles or cans. But the labels often measure calories per 8 ounces and claim there are three servings. A bottle of chocolate milk drink measures its serving size as 1 cup, and says there are "about 2" servings. I don't know about you, but I've never tried to divide up a bottled drink like that.
A three-ounce bag of chips, which most would consider a single portion, contains three servings. If consumers don't pay close attention, they can easily be misled into thinking a bag of chips has a third less calories than it actually has. It's simply not instinctive to do the real math. Nor is it a real draw to have an open bag with uneaten chips floating around in your purse or backpack. Bottom line: Once the package is open, we tend to be "all in."
True, some companies sell 100-calorie, single-serving snack packs -- which is the right portion size -- and make a big deal out of it on the label. But for the most part, confusion abounds.
The FDA is thankfully planning to update label requirements to reflect this new reality. Among other things, it's planning to update the definitions of serving size to bring them more in line with what people actually eat. So a product that contains up to twice the RACC would still have to be labeled as a single serving.
In addition, if a product looks like a single serving, but is actually more than twice the RACC, the new rule would require a separate column clearly indicating the calories, fat, sodium and nutrients if someone consumes the entire thing. Brace yourself for those numbers.
Mainstream food companies aren't likely to start broadly selling single-serving portions that actually make sense as a single serving, which is at the core of any successful weight-loss and maintenance regime. But, at least the labels can be less misleading. After all, when's the last time you had less than half a soda and one third of a bag of chips? Thought so.