Tony Cenicola/The New York TimesAccording to its label, a pint of Häagen-Dazs ice cream contains four servings. But when was the last time you measured out a fourth of a container of Cookies & Cream, then put the rest away for another day?
For many people, the reality is that much of a pint can easily vanish in one sitting. A large package of Cool Ranch Doritos lists a single serving as one ounce, or roughly 12 chips, but it’s hard to imagine keeping count of every last chip as you dig into a bag. And while 160 calories and two grams of saturated fat may sound like a small price to pay for a serving of Oreo cookies, keep in mind that technically speaking, a serving is a paltry three cookies.In the face of mounting criticism, the Food and Drug Administration has been under pressure for years to force food makers to include more realistic serving-size information on their labels. The agency regulates the serving sizes that can be listed on packages by providing food makers with detailed guidelines to follow, which list the amounts of a specific food that a person would “customarily consume” in a typical sitting. But critics say these so-called reference amounts are often laughably small because they’re based in part on surveys of eating behavior that were carried out in the 1970s, when Americans ate less food and portions had not been supersized.Now, in an effort to highlight the problems with some labels, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, has singled out what it says are some of the worst offenders.At the top of its list are labels for canned soups, ice cream, coffee creamers and nonstick cooking sprays — all of which grossly understate the calories, sodium and saturated fat the average person typically consumes when eating these foods.Canned soup may be one of the more stark examples. According to its label, a single serving of Campbell’s Chunky Classic Chicken Noodle soup is one cup — just under half a can — and contains about 790 milligrams of sodium. But in a national survey of 1,000 consumers, only 10 percent of people said they would eat a one-cup portion. Most, about 64 percent, said they would eat an entire can at one time, taking in 1,840 milligrams of sodium in a sitting. That is roughly 80 percent of the 2,300 milligrams recommended as the upper limit for daily salt intake under the 2005 Dietary Guidelines, and well above the 1,500 milligrams that health officials have said about half the population should adhere to (those with hypertension, African-Americans and people over 50).A similar number of the people asked, 61 percent, said they would also eat the entire can of a condensed soup, like Campbell’s Chicken Noodle, which lists 2.5 servings per can. A single serving contains 890 milligrams of sodium, and the full can has 2,390 milligrams. About 27 percent of respondents said they would eat just half a can in one sitting.The group also took issue with the “Healthy Request” labels, which are for soups that fall below 480 milligrams of sodium per serving. Campbell’s has worked hard to lower sodium below that level, bringing its “Healthy Request” versions of Chunky Chicken Noodle and condensed Chicken Noodle down to 410 milligrams of sodium per serving. But the amount of sodium that people actually end up consuming when they eat an entire can, “is enormous,” said Michael Jacobson, the group’s executive director.The findings were based on a questionnaire commissioned by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and carried out by Opinion Research Corporation in Princeton, N.J. Another product that made the list of egregious offenders was cooking sprays, which list nutritional information based on “ridiculously tiny serving sizes,” the group said. One of the most popular, PAM, boasts zero calories and zero fat on the label of its original canola cooking spray. But that information refers to a spray lasting just a quarter of a second. “That’s just not the way people use them,” Mr. Jacobson said. “It’s probably impossible to spray for a third of a second. We suggested six seconds might be kind of reasonable.” A six-second spray, he said, has 50 calories and six grams of fat.Coffee creamers are another overlooked source of fat and calories. Coffee-mate, a popular flavoring, lists nutritional information based on a single teaspoon, even though many people are likely to dump far more than that into their morning cuppa. A look at the label of Fat Free Original Coffee-mate leads people to think they’re getting 10 calories and zero fat, when a two-tablespoon serving — a more realistic serving size, the group says — would add 50 calories and 1.6 grams of saturated fat. That’s almost identical to two tablespoons of ordinary half and half: about 40 calories and two grams of saturated fat.“Over the years we’ve looked and laughed at many serving sizes,” Mr. Jacobson said, “and these are some of the foods where the label serving is just so different from what people actually consume.”The F.D.A. has been in the process of revising existing food labels since 2005. But the agency has been somewhat tight-lipped about where it is in the process and any changes it plans to make, like whether labels should include details on added sugars or just total sugar, for example, and whether calories should be emphasized less or more than they are now, Mr. Jacobson said. This fall, the Institute of Medicine is expected to release its own report on food packaging and labeling as well.