Why does the UK have such strange and unrealistic portion sizes?

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  • More by Omar Bishara

Welcome to the strange and unrealistic world of UK food portion control

Al-Sahawat Times

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When a pretty typical British man 5ft 9inches and 84KG (the official national average) hears that a small packet of crisps (potato chips) is around 2 servings, a small can/bottle of fruit juice is 2-3 servings and a portion of breakfast cereal is just 30 grams, the typical reaction is to laugh.

According to the back of a 55g packet of potato chips we purchased from a local store in London, 30g constitutes one serving. In the Middle-East we are used to packets containing 150, 175 or 225 grams. 30 grams, seems to imply that one mouth full per day is what Brits consider eating? Yet the UK is one of the most obese nations on earth, how if they don’t eat? Well, they ignore the ridiculous portion sizes that how.

Just over halfway through your tiny packet of chips, you should roll up the rest of the bag and save it for another day according to the stated portion control labels. A 360ml bottle of fruit juice varies between 2.2 and 3 portions. We also found fruit juice and water served in 50 and 80 ml servings like those you get on airplanes.. or prisons in many countries.

The closer you look at the serving suggestions on British supermarket foods, the more confusing things become. If you’re in the mood or something sweet, then you better get ready to count out individual smarties, 16 of them to be precise. When it comes to chocolate depending on type and indeed brand the portion control labels stated one portion as anything from 15 grams to 46 grams (22 grams by mean average) on those we purchased from London supermarkets and convenience stores.

When it comes to the much loved British staple of microwaveable ready meals, more often than not you’re only supposed to eat half of the tiny plastic tray that is barely covered with often questionable food.  Anyone who’s weighed out the recommended 30g of cereal will gaze confused at how it barely covers the bottom of a bowel. British hospitals even offer patents two packets of cereal. That’s right tiny 30g boxes of cereal also exist. Cereal in the UK comes in boxes and bags ranging from 30 grams (one portion) to 1 kg. They even stipulate how much milk is permitted with the portion (125 ml of semi skimmed cow’s milk with no toppings, yogurt, fruit, nuts or honey).

So why exactly are serving suggestions so out of step with what any adult who actually wants to you know, live, eats? It doesn’t help that the food Brits eat has been changing constantly – a 2016 report from Consensus Action on Salt and Health found (perhaps unsurprisingly) that the level of salt in some common foods had crept up over a period of six years.

While food in the UK is generally getting worse for your health, health guidelines are encouraging us to cut down. In 2015 the World Health Organisation recommended that simple sugars – the kind found in fruit juices or processed food and drinks – should make up less than 10 per cent of our daily calorie intake, and ideally be half that. In the UK at the time of the recommendation, the average adult intake was closer to 17 per cent. The UK sugar intake may be dramatically lower than that in the Middle-East or USA but is one of the highest in Europe when we look at what percentage of your daily calories are made up by sugar.

We’re meant to cut down on unhealthy food, sure, but how come manufacturers have opted for confusing portioning recommendations instead of just serving food in healthy-ish sizes or recipes.

The explanation may lie in the UK and EU food labelling laws. As of 2014, the EU regulation on the provision of food information to consumers (EU FIC) has made it mandatory for companies to provide “back of pack” nutritional informational per 100ml or 100g. This allows consumers to compare two products like-for-like. Yet the regulation also states that brands can also voluntarily add their own “per portion” values to nutritional tables.

“While industry standards have been set for the portion sizes of some foods, such as cereals, the government has not set any portion size labelling standards,” explains Dr Lucy Chambers, a senior scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation. “There is debate around whether portion sizes on-pack should represent what people actually consume or what they should consume and it’s not clear which of these two types of information better supports healthier choices.”

Essentially the EU makes it law to give per 100ml/gram information. The UK then allows individual companies to put per portion information not only next to this but in bigger brighter coloured labels on the from of the packaging. WITHOUT regulating what a portion is. So brands try to appear more healthy to attract business over the competition by marking their portions as tiny. This gives the impression of healthier food and better value for money, if the chocolate bar you eat every day is now labeled as 4 portions or “serves 4”.

However it’s not that simple, nothing ever is with the UK legal system. There are SOME government enforced portion sizes, not private companies are not required to state if their portion size is company policy, advertising or government regulated.

For example, the UK government’s serving size recommendation for juice is 150ml, which explains how a 330ml bottle of smoothie can be 2.2 portions, it is based on government guidelines (not enforced law) and not company branding.

But for other foods, which lack a government set standard for serving sizes, brands rely on non-governmental organisations and healthcare professionals to advise them, or PR and marketing consultants. For reference, many use a 2002 photographic guide to food portion sizes created by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries. Serving suggestions aren’t totally lawless, then, and the Department for Health and Social Care warns that misleading labels (like claiming a pizza serves 150 people) can be reported to Trading Standards, they just very rarely if ever are reported and even less likely to be legally challenged.

Yet even though companies aren’t taking things to the furthest possible extreme, there are still problems with the rules and regulations around portion sizes, says dietician Luci Daniels. In 2013, Daniels helped author a British Heart Foundation report, Portion Distortion, which argued that food companies need to make changes to ensure that “portion sizes are standardised, clearly labelled and easy to understand”. Yet companies continue to set their own sizes, perhaps because it lets them sugarcoat the unhealthiness of their products.

“It looks better if you declare that a portion of crisps, or chocolate, or something else is 100 calories rather than 200 calories,” Daniels says. “The food industry perhaps isn’t being as open and honest and realistic as it could be.” While a small 300ml bottle of Tropicana – the kind you would buy in a meal deal – looks like a single portion, a footnote at the bottom of the nutritional table states, “This pack contains two servings”. “People look at calories, but they probably won’t look at the very small font that says per 15g, or per five pieces, or whatever,” Daniels says. “It’s wrong, because it’s very misleading.”

Strange serving suggestions cause further problems when they’re used in conjunction with traffic light labelling, a voluntary scheme which was introduced in 2013. These colour-coded front-of-pack labels reveal at a glance whether a product contains low (green), medium (amber), or high (red) levels of your guideline daily amounts of calories, fat, saturated fat, salt, and sugar. While the colour coding on the labels is based on 100g or 100ml of the product, confusingly, the nutritional information (such as the grams of fat or the calories) is based on the portion size. This means the percentage that the fat or salt contributes to your recommended intake is also set per portion.

The UK also operated a Sugar tax, not too dissimilar to Oman’s sin tax on energy drinks and sugary drinks. However in the UK there seems to be a lack of regulation or consensus as to what sugar is. A full sugar ‘original’ soft drink in several local London stores cost us £1.35 on average yet the “Zero Sugar” versions of the same brand and the same size (250 – 330 ml depending on brand) was also £1.35 on average. Even though the price “includes sugar tax” Meaning that some one on the supply chain is pocketing the sugar tax value on the sugar free variants. Yet we found energy drinks in their full sugar full caffeine variants for the same size portions only cost on average £1.09 from the same London stores with the full price range £0.30p – £1.25p including the big brands such as Red Bull. This means that on average energy drinks were cheaper than water whilst fizzy drinks with zero sugar were more expensive than alcohol.

In short, the only way to really figure out what is healthy or not is to look at the per 100 ml/gram labels and work it out for your self based on how much you personally consume. For me, a 450 ml pot of yogurt does not serve 12 members of my family and neighbours’ families, it serves me, just me.

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About the Author

Omar Bishara
Journalist, Broadcast News Correspondent and Photojournalist