Food Portions and Servings, How do They Differ

Consumers appear to be confused about serving sizes----what they mean and how to use them. Complicating the problem are large portions of food that are becoming the norm in many eating establishments, which differ from the servings in the Food Guide Pyramid (FGP) and on the Nutrition Facts Label on food packaging.

For example, a large deli bagel might weigh 6 ounces (about 6 FGP servings of bread) while the 1/2 medium bagel listed on the Food Guide Pyramid weighs 1 ounce (about 1 serving of bread). With so much variation in portions of foods, it's easy for consumers to become confused about what serving sizes mean and how to use them.

What's a Food Guide Pyramid Serving?

The Food Guide Pyramid serving is a unit of measure used to describe the total amount of foods recommended daily from each of the food groups. Criteria for selecting the serving sizes are identified in the box. Larger portions count as more than one serving; smaller portions count as partial servings.

The Pyramid shows a range of servings for each of the five major food groups. The number of servings an individual requires depends on how many calories he or she needs. For example, the Pyramid suggests 6 to 11 servings of grain products each day. An individual consuming 1600 calories would need 6 servings of grains while an individual consuming 2800 calories would need 11 servings of grains.

What's a Food Label Serving?

A food label serving is a specific amount of food that contains the quantity of nutrients listed on the Nutrition Facts Label. The 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) specified reference serving amounts for almost 200 product categories to be used on labels.

To make food label servings consumer-friendly, the serving sizes are expressed in household measures, such as cups, ounces, or pieces, as well as grams, and generally reflect the amount an individual might reasonably consume each eating occasion.

Food Label vs. Food Guide Pyramid Serving Sizes----How Do They Differ?

For many food items, the serving size in the Food Guide Pyramid and on the food label are the same (e.g., 1/2 cup canned fruit or vegetables). However, some serving sizes differ because the Pyramid and the food label serve different purposes.

The Pyramid describes serving units for each food group (e.g., 1/2 cup chopped or cooked vegetables and 1 cup raw leafy vegetables) so that they will be easy to remember and help consumers select a healthful diet. The food label serving unit is specific for each product category and designed to help consumers compare nutrient information on a number of food products within a category.

The food label serving units cover mixed dishes (e.g., frozen entrees) as well as simple items (e.g., canned fruits). Pyramid serving units are primarily for simple food items, such as fruits, vegetables, and plain grain products. Additionally, the Pyramid serving size specifies the amount of a food that provides a designated amount of key nutrients from that food group: for example, 3/4 cup fruit juice and 1 cup milk.

Some food label product categories such as ''beverages'' specify the same serving size (1 cup), regardless of the food group in which the beverage (fruit juice, milk, or soda) belongs. In both cases----the Food Guide Pyramid and the food label----the ''serving size'' is a unit of measure and may not be the portion of food an individual actually eats at one occasion.

What's a Portion?

A ''portion'' can be thought of as the amount of a specific food an individual eats for dinner, snack, or other eating occasion. Portions, of course, can be bigger or smaller than the servings listed in the Food Guide Pyramid or on a food label.

Many factors affect food portions, such as the individual's age, gender, activity level, and appetite and where and when the food is obtained and eaten.

How Do Food Guide Pyramid Serving Sizes Compare With Portions Typically Reported?

Consistent with their greater calorie need, men's portion sizes (number of food guide servings at each eating occasion) are larger than those for women; for both genders, portion sizes decrease with age, especially for foods such as meats and grain products.

Serving Sizes in the Food Guide Pyramid are based on four criteria :

1. Amount of foods from a food group typically reported in surveys as consumed on one eating occasion;
2. Amount of foods that provide a comparable amount of key nutrients from that food group, for example, the amount of cheese that provides the same amount of calcium as 1 cup fluid milk;
3. Amount of foods recognized by most consumers (e.g., household measures) or that can be easily multiplied or divided to describe a quantity of food actually consumed (portion);
4. Amount traditionally used in previous food guides to describe servings.

Source:  USDA