Unrealistic Serving Sizes Understate Calories, Sodium, Saturated Fat, Says CSPI

Labels for Soup & Ice Cream Among Worst Offenders


Labels for canned soup, ice cream, coffee creamer, and aerosol non-stick cooking sprays understate the calories, sodium, and saturated fat consumers are likely to get from those products, since the declared serving sizes are much smaller than actual serving sizes, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. In a recent letter to Food and Drug Administration chief Margaret Hamburg, the nonprofit consumer group again urged the agency to revise its serving-size regulations.

Canned soup presents a dramatic example of how unrealistic the stated serving sizes are, according to CSPI. Labels for Campbell’s Chunky Classic Chicken Noodle soup indicate a serving is 1 cup (a little less than half a can) and has 790 milligrams of sodium—a hefty amount by any standard and about half the sodium most adults should consume in a whole day. But according to a national telephone survey commissioned by CSPI, 64 percent of consumers would eat the whole can at one time and would consume 1,840 mg of sodium—more than a day’s worth for most adults. Only 10 percent of consumers said they eat 1 cup portions.

Similarly, CSPI’s survey found that 62 percent of consumers eat the contents of the entire can of a (reconstituted) condensed soup like Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup. An entire can holds 2,390 mg of sodium—far more than the 890 mg listed for one serving. That amount of sodium only applies if one can is divided into 2½ portions. Another 27 percent eat half a can at a sitting, so they get 1,195 mg.

“Given the prevalence of hypertension, heart disease, and stroke in America, we need accurate food labels that would ensure that consumers really know what they’re likely to consume,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “The FDA should define serving sizes to reflect what consumers actually eat, as the law requires, not what the soup industry pretends that they eat.”

The serving size for ice cream is a dainty half-cup, and Nutrition Facts labels for Häagen-Dazs Vanilla ice cream dutifully list 10 grams of saturated fat per serving. So someone eating a whole cup of that ice cream would actually be eating a full day’s worth of saturated fat (20 g).

A ridiculously tiny serving size of a third, a quarter, or even a fifth of a second spray helps PAM and other aerosol cooking sprays boast zero calories and zero fat, even though the products are mostly fat. A six second spray would have 50 calories and 6 grams of fat.

Another example is powdered coffee creamer. The serving size on the label of Fat Free Original Coffee-mate is one teaspoon, even though many or most consumers use several times as much. The small serving size leads people to think that they’re getting only 10 calories and no fat or saturated fat per serving. In fact, a two-tablespoon serving of Fat Free Original Coffee-mate would have 50 calories and 1.6 grams of saturated fat, according to a 2008 memo from Nestlé. (That’s not much different than the 40 calories and 2 grams of saturated fat in two tablespoons of ordinary half and half.)

FDA regulations specify standard serving sizes for various foods to enable consumers to compare different brands. However, those serving sizes were based on data collected in the late 1970s, and even so were sometimes flawed. The FDA is now reviewing serving sizes in a broader revision of food labels.

Related Links and Downloads: