Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis
What’s In A Serving?
A scoopful of mushrooms?
A handful of mushrooms?
84 grams (1.2 cups) of mushrooms?
½ cup of mushrooms?
The amount of food that constitutes a “serving” seems to be in the eye of the beholder, and that leads to vast confusion about how much food we should be eating. Forget about the confusion between a “serving” of pasta that should feed a family of four at an Italian restaurant and the ½ cup that constitutes a serving of pasta from a dietitian’s perspective. Let’s talk about just produce.
PMA recently conducted consumer research into this topic: When asked to define what a “serving” represents, consumers gave us a range of answers including “less than one cup,” “one piece,” “a handful or fistful” and a “scoopful.” However, 81 percent agreed that it is easier for them to understand a daily amount of fruits and vegetables when that amount is described as cups rather than servings. The figures for men and women did not differ significantly.
Perhaps the key test of understanding came on two questions that pitted the recommendation of “5 to 13 servings a day” against the same amount expressed as “2½ to 6½ cups a day.” The results show that 43 percent of consumers think the “cup” wording is about the right amount that they could reasonably eat, while only 26 percent expressed the same view about the “serving” wording — even though both represent the same amounts of fruits and vegetables! Conversely, we found that 43 percent of consumers thought the “serving” wording was “much more” than they could reasonably eat in one day while only 28 percent felt the same way about the “cup” wording.
OK, so consumers are confused. Let’s turn to the experts, the dietary experts in the U.S. government, for a standard. There we find more confusion.
For purposes of implementing provisions in the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 (NLEA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has defined “serving” or “serving size” to mean “the amount of food customarily consumed per eating occasion by persons 4 years of age or older, which is expressed in a common household measure that is appropriate to the food.”
Then we have the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which provides authoritative advice for people 2 years and older about how good dietary habits can promote health and reduce risk for major chronic diseases. The 2005 edition of the Guidelines was released Jan. 12, 2005. In it, the serving size for fruits and vegetables is defined as ½ cup.
How far apart can “the amount customarily consumed” and ½ cup be? In the case of mushrooms, the NLEA serving is 84 grams (1.2 cups). Translating that to the ½ cup serving measure in the Dietary Guidelines, you get nearly 2.5 servings. And that’s not the largest divergence. A few more examples:
Green onion: NLEA serving is ¼ cup (25g), which is only ½ of a Dietary Guidelines serving.
Broccoli: NLEA serving is 1 medium stalk (148g, 1.68 cups), which is 3.3 Dietary Guidelines servings.
Apple: NLEA serving is 1 medium apple (154g, 1.23 cups), which is 2.5 Dietary Guidelines servings.
Do any of the serving sizes match up according to the government? Yes. In the top 20 fruits and top 20 vegetables, tangerines and sweet corn are consistent. One NLEA serving for each of them is the same as one Dietary Guidelines serving. None of the others match.
PMA has called on the government to do what it can to provide meaningful, non-contradictory information to consumers. That process will take time, though, if it comes to pass at all.
Given that consumers are confused and the government is using conflicting terminology, what does this mean for our industry? We can anticipate the day when all fresh produce offers such a consistently tasty, convenient and healthful eating experience that rather than encouraging increased consumption, we’re producing like mad to meet the demand.
But for right now, perhaps it is up to us to reduce the information clutter and give consumers tools they can use to help them increase fresh produce consumption. PMA’s research has shown that consumers relate to cups better than servings. For most fresh produce, one serving is ½ cup (leafy greens are 1 cup). On average, consumers should be eating 2 cups of fruit and 2.5 cups of vegetables a day (9 servings).
PMA suggested that the FDA change the Nutrition Facts Panel to include the equivalent number of servings the product would provide based on the Dietary Guidelines. For example:
Serving Size: 2 medium stalks (110g)
This amount provides about 1 cup or 2 recommended daily servings of vegetables
Serving Size: 1 medium (154g)
This amount provides about 1 cup or 2 recommended daily servings of fruit
There are other solutions out there. And this industry has the smart marketing minds to figure out the best ones. Let’s work to end the confusion. When consumers are in the grocery store or at the restaurant, we don’t want them focused on serving sizes. We want them focused on delicious, convenient, nutritious fresh produce. Let’s make it easy for them to do that.