Thanks to packaging, you can eat a meal for two without even knowing it.
Just grab a pot pie from the freezer and pop open a 20-ounce bottle of Coke.
If you don't look closely at the nutrition information label, you might think you're eating a single serving. According to Bonnie Liebman, it's not that simple.
Mrs. Liebman, the director of nutrition for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, once highlighted "nine stupid serving-size tricks" in the group's newsletter.
"Sometimes companies will use the real serving size, and sometimes they won't," she said. "The FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) has tried to rein in some of these claims. You can't call something low fat by shrinking the portion anymore, but there is still a lot of leeway."
One example of curious labeling Mrs. Liebman cited is the smallest box of Stouffer's frozen macaroni and cheese, which has 320 calories, 7 grams of saturated fat and 970 milligrams of sodium per serving, but those numbers apply only to two-thirds of the package. Eat the entire box, which is listed as containing 1 servings, and you're actually getting 480 calories, 11 grams of saturated fat and 1,460 milligrams of sodium.
Likewise, a package of Otis Spunkmeyer chocolate chocolate chip muffins contains three muffins, but the nutrition label says there are six servings per package. Eat a whole muffin, and you're putting away 440 of the 2,000 calories the FDA recommends in a daily diet.
That is the reason the FDA's How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label pamphlet says to examine the serving size before anything else. An entire Boston Market frozen pot pie has 1,200 calories and 30 grams of saturated fat, but the information label lists it as two servings. It begs the question: Who's going to cut it in half?
"The problem is, there's a loophole in the regulations," Mrs. Liebman said. "For single-serving foods, you can use the standard reference food serving size, which is a cup, or a whole package. So companies will choose the smaller serving size so the food looks like it's got fewer calories."
The number-juggling cuts both ways. Mrs. Liebman said that with cereal, the serving size can be defined in either a quarter-cup or one-third cup increments, depending on its density. The goal is not to hide fat or sodium, but to emphasize fiber content.
"Using a smaller serving size makes the food look good," she said. "Ramen noodles are among the worst offenders. If you can find someone who eats half a package (which is considered a serving size), I'd like to meet them."
Of course, numbers on nutrition labels, including the 2,000-calorie diet they're based on, are not ironclad. The 2,000 number is an average; in general, men need more calories, and women need fewer. In any case, Mrs. Liebman said, few shoppers actively track the percentage of calcium, sodium or iron that they consume.
"It's more that they pick up two foods and compare them, and say this one has 50 calories and this one has more, so I'm going to buy the first one," she said. "I'm sure there are some dieters out there who are adding up their numbers, but they're the exception."
Part of the problem, she said, is that eating habits have changed drastically in recent years.
"The consumption data used to determine the serving sizes is about 25 years old, so it's clear that the serving sizes are inadequate," Mrs. Liebman said. "The serving size for cooked pasta is one cup, but unless you're 3 years old, I don't know anyone eating that much in a serving."
Kathy Belinski, the nutrition coordinator for the Richmond County Board of Education, said serving-size confusion mostly revolves around processed foods, and she pinned the blame on marketing pressures.
"To some degree, I think manufacturers and restaurants are just giving what people want, which is large amounts of food. Look at steak restaurants - the size of some of the steaks will serve four, and they're being served as one meal," she said. "There's this idea that 'I want to get my money's worth.' A single serving may be so small, people might not even buy it."
Ms. Belinski said nutrition labels still can be useful, even if they have flaws.
"We know the influence of high fat and high sodium, so people with known medical problems can be in control of their diet. Labels can give them tools to purchase things wisely," she said. "If people could just go back to eating in moderation, we'd have a healthier nation."
Reach Patrick Verel at (706) 823-3332 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chicken-Flavored Ramen Noodles
If you really want to consume only 190 calories and 910 milligrams of sodium, get a sharp knife and hack those noodles in half. When eaten by one with the entire flavor pack, those numbers double.
Boston Market Chicken Pot Pie
A quick glance at the back says 600 calories and 15 grams of saturated fat, but that's only if you chop it in half and share it with a friend. Pictured is the single serving.
Stouffer's Macaroni and Cheese
One serving yields 320 calories, 7 grams of saturated fat and 970 milligrams of sodium. If that's all you want, nuke it, then scoop out and throw away a third of the contents.
Otis Spunkmeyer Chocolate Muffins
Like the pot pie, what appears to be one serving is listed as two. Get out a knife, or double the 12 grams of total fat, the 220 calories and the 189 milligrams of sodium.
20-ounce soft drink
The 100 calories listed on the back of your favorite soft drink apply to only 8 ounces of the drink. Guzzle the entire thing, and you've put away 250 calories. Pictured is a single serving of 8 ounces, in comparison to the bottled 20-ounce soda, which contains 2.5 servings.
Reese's Peanut Butter Cups
The serving size of a two-pack of Reese's peanut butter cups is the whole package, and with it comes 230 calories, 13 grams of fat and 130 milligrams of sodium. Likewise, the king-size package, with four cups, is considered a single serving to the tune of 420 calories, 24 grams of fat and 250 milligrams of sodium. It just goes to show that the folks at Hershey are OK with your eating the whole thing.
According to the nutrition label, a serving size of regular Chips Ahoy! cookies contains 160 calories, but a serving size of Peanut Butter Chips Ahoy! contains 80 calories. How so? A serving of regular cookies is three cookies, or 33 grams, and a serving of peanut butter is one cookie, at 15 grams. The FDA's recommended serving for cookies is 30 grams, but if a unit of food weighs at least half that, its label can use one cookie as a serving. If both kinds were treated equally, a serving size of three peanut butter cookies would actually yield 240 calories. And really, who can eat just one cookie?