Serving size and packaging cues: mixed messages?

Serving size is one of the last areas of food labelling where the food business can exercise some discretion under the Food Standards Code, but is this discretion being exercised wisely?

Food labelling in Australia is subject to extensive regulation. The intricate requirements set out in the ANZ Food Standards Code and the Trade Measurements Act, reflect the political interest and involvement in food regulation and policy.

The constraints of prescriptive regulation do not, however, lessen the overarching obligation on manufacturers to ensure that their packaging and labelling complies with the Australian Consumer Law and are not false, misleading or deceptive.

The Food Standards Code requires that nutrition information panels be included on the labels of packaged goods, with few exceptions. The formatting and content of the panel is described in detail, including the requirement that it include the number of servings of the food in the package, and the nutrition profile on a ‘per serving’ basis, as well as per 100ml (for liquids) or 100g (for solid or semi-solid food).

The standard allows for the substitution of the word ‘serving’ with ‘slice, pack or package’ or ‘metric cup/ metric tablespoon’ or other appropriate word or words expressing a unit or common measure.

The Code is otherwise silent as to how ‘a serving’ is to be determined, leaving that as a discretionary measure for manufacturers. This article will examine some examples of how sample size is being applied and whether consumers are getting useful information or mixed messages.

Serving suggestion and serving size

Attractive depiction of a packaged food product served and ready to eat has long been a part of food packaging, as has the ubiquitous disclaimer ‘serving suggestion’. However the ‘serving’ depicted is sometimes vastly different to the ‘per serving’ stated quantity on the nutrition information panel.

The risk for manufacturers is ensuring that there is no inappropriate suggestion to consumers that a full bowl (as pictured) has an energy and nutrition profile ‘per serve’ (as listed). It is debatable whether such conduct could ever rise to the level of misleading or deceptive conduct under the Australian Consumer Law, though consistent variation between the depiction of a serve and a stated serve might invite regulatory attention or intervention.

Physical product and serving size?

It is not too difficult to find items on supermarket shelves that cite ‘fractional’ servings, a consequence of nominating a serving size that is not a factor of the total product weight or volume. For example, a 120g packet of sweets with a nominated serving size of 25g (4.8 servings per pack), or a 420g pouch of soup with a nominated serving size of 250g (1.7 servings per pack).

Having a serving size that is incompatible with the presentation of the product may pose reputational risk. Consider TobleroneTM, the recipient of a Choice Magazine “Shonky” award in 2012 for an incompatible serving size and product configuration. TobleroneTM packaging provides information for a 25g serving size across its product range. The distinctive ‘mountain’ portions of a TobleroneTM chocolate bar are, however, largely not factors of 25g. A 400g TobleroneTM chocolate bar is stated to contain 16 servings, although it has 15 segments. As a consequence, the nutritional profile of the nominated ‘serve’ is around 7% lower than each piece of chocolate in the bar. While the reporting of this situation was lighthearted, it invites unflattering commentary which a manufacturer might wish to avoid.

Physical packaging and serving size

Soft drink manufacturers often adopt fluctuating serving sizes which reflects the way the product is most likely to be consumed, ie: whether the product is presented for a single person or multiple person consumption. For instance, a serve may be 375ml for a can or 600ml for a single serve bottle, or multiple 250ml serves in larger format bottles. Adapting the serving size in this way is providing more meaningful information to a consumer, than maintaining a single set serving size across different volume products.

Serving size and other product claims

Serving size has long been relevant to certain claims about a product. For example, a particular serving size might be selected to enable a claim to be made such as “half your daily iron requirements in one serve”.

With increasing recent focus on promoting the recommended five daily serves of vegetables, some products have claims regarding the vegetable content such as “x serves of vegetables per pack”. The challenge in making ‘per pack’ claims is where the nutrition information panel indicates that the pack has more than one serving. Making ‘per pack’ claims when otherwise claiming multiple serves per pack could be confusing and open to criticism.

Serving size parity

What about setting a serving size which favourably compares to a competing product on a ‘per serving’ basis?

Consider two competing snack foods that are identically shaped and sized (one private brand, one home brand) which each adopt front of pack nutritional information on a per serve basis. The private brand snack food is less calorific than the home brand product, however, the private brand nominates each pack to have 25g servings compared to the home brand’s 20g servings. Although in reality the private brand product is say 5% less calorific, the different serving sizes on the front of pack information suggests that the private brand is 120% more calorific. A consumer making a quick visual comparison of the products may be influenced to select the home brand product as it appears, from the front of the pack at least, to be less energy dense despite that not being the case.

This is likely best addressed by manufacturers on a case-by-case basis, depending on the nature of the competitive forces at play between different products. That is, how great a risk the competing product is perceived to be, and whether adapting consistent serving sizes (in this scenario, by the private brand) would have any material impact on sales.

Best practice

Looking at these scenarios, it is not hard to see that consumers might sometimes be baffled by ‘serving size’ and consequentially make poor choices. A consistent focus on providing meaningful and clear information to consumers about how much of a particular food should be consumed will result in best practice. This could be as simple as going beyond the basic regulatory requirements to provide context as well as weight or volume to describe a serving size, for example: 15g (2 biscuits) or 30g (half a cup).

Otherwise, it will be interesting to see whether these sorts of challenges regarding serving size nomination continue, or change if the Health Star Rating is broadly adopted.

Regardless, in the current political and regulatory environment, it is in the interest of food manufacturers to ensure serving sizes are contextually appropriate to avoid legal, reputational or commercial challenges at a product level, or even more regulation at an industry level.

First published in Food Australia Magazine, June-July 2015, Vol 67, Issue 3, pp28-29