Consumer watchdog Choice is calling for an overhaul to current labelling standards, after research revealed some manufacturers are misleading consumers over portion sizes to make their products seem healthier.
The Choice study found that some manufacturers using the thumbnail percentage guides on the front of packaging to portray their products as the healthier option are deceiving consumers by using distorted serving sizes.
Choice spokesperson Ingrid Just told Food Magazine the practise has been going on for some time.
“We’re not surprised [by the findings], we know manufacturers are manipulating serving sizes to make products seem healthier than they are,” she said.
“Those manufacturers who use thumbnail percentage [daily intake] labels on the front of packs often look to that serving size because it brings some of those percentages down.
“So for consumers who may use that to compare products, they are getting an unrealistic reading, as the serving sizes may not be the same.”
In Australia, manufacturers are responsible for deciding on appropriate serving sizes, and as such, they often vary between different sized of the same product.
A Mars Bar serving, for example, is stated as 18, 36 or 53 grams, depending on the pack size
Comparatively, the US serving sizes are regulated by government body the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Just said the industry needs to be regulated so that manufacturers can’t select serving sizes that will paint them in a more positive light than reality.
“The daily intake thumbnails are confusing, consumers find them difficult to understand, and we’re saying there needs to be one consistent comparison, using 100 grams or 100 millilitres, so that across products, regardless of serving size, they can find healthy options.”
Just said the design and display of front-of-pack labelling is crucial to its success, as consumers don’t allow much time to make their decisions.
“We think any front-of-pack labelling should be one that allows consumers to find healthy options at a glance, so colours or symbols should be used to make that obvious, because consumers take two to five seconds to chose products, so they have to be able to easily compare.
“It needs to be based not on serving sizes.”
The research found manufacturers are putting up to three servings into packaging portrayed to be a single serving size, leading consumers to consume more than intended.
With the mandatory front-of-pack nutritional labelling due to be rolled out by the government this year, Just said Choice will be assisting agencies to find the best variation.
“We look forward to working with all stakeholders to make sure it is easy to understand, is based on a standard measure and is easily comparable,” she told Food Magazine.
Successfully overhauling the system would result in a healthier industry, according to Just.
“What we know is that a front-of-pack, easy to understand system would highlight those products that are worse, and that’s why some manufacturers wouldn’t support it.
“Having said that, it would encourage regulation, which would see, in turn, more healthier products on shelves, and that is good for consumers and everyone.”
The Choice report refers to the latest food and nutrition publication from the government’s Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that found that our current overweight and obesity rates – 23% of children and 61% of adults – are some of the highest in the world.
“Food portion sizes are increasing,” the report states.
“In the US in the 1950s, McDonald’s offered just one size of soft drink – 7oz (about 210mL).
“It now has 12, 16, 21 and 32oz (950mL) offerings.
“And French fries and hamburgers are now two to five times larger than those originally offered.
“Portion distortion has even occurred in the home, where the sizes of our bowls and glasses have steadily increased and the surface area of the average dinner plate has increased 36 per cent since 1960.
“Why does this matter?
“Put simply, the bigger the portion, the more you eat and the more kilojoules (energy) you consume.
“Between 1983/85 and 1995, energy intake increased significantly for both adults and children in Australia.
"Without an equivalent increase in energy expenditure, increases in energy intake can result in significant weight gain over time.”
Increasing plate sizes has also led Australians to consume more, as natural instinct leads most to fill a plate or bowl, regardless of its size.
Even nutritionists aren’t immune to the behaviour, with one study asking 85 nutrition experts to serve themselves a bowl of ice cream.
A variety of bowl and scoop sizes were handed out, and it was found that those with larger bowls served themselves 31 per cent more ice cream without being aware of it, while a bigger spoon made them dish out almost 15 per cent more.
What do you make of these findings? Does there need to be one standard across the board, or should manufacturers be entitled to make the call on serving sizes themselves?