08.07.12: Portion Sizes, Politics, and Indignation

Serving sizes and the regulation thereof have sparked several flaps of late. Most prominent among said flaps is the proposal to ban sales of massive soda pops in New York City.

This entry is not about that particular flap – although I’ll briefly say that I find many elements of it to be hilarious. The hubbub is less about the sodas themselves, and more about whether one believes that one of the government’s roles is to keep us from killing our fool selves, or whether one believes that the government should get out of the way while we proceed to kill our fool selves, as is our right. The arguments are tangled, complicated, and fraught. What’s interesting is that nobody is pretending that 40 ounces of sweet soda (480 calories, more than 30 teaspoons of sugar) is good for you. The question is whether it’s anyone’s business that we suck it down. The same arguments could be applied to seatbelt laws, ordinances that restrict smoking, banking regulations … and so forth. My blog is about wellness, and so I’ll stick to wellness.

I ran across this article from 2010:
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/06/business/06portion.html?pagewanted=all

Apparently, the FDA realized that the serving sizes on labels of packaged foods are … let’s say they’re “problematic.” Or we could go ahead and say that they’re inconsistent, confusing, unrealistic, all over the map, and not the slightest bit helpful.

Current serving size “standards” are based on old data which don’t reflect the way foods are marketed, packaged, and consumed today. So the serving sizes aren’t relevant. Plus, they vary from product to product – a serving of regular Cheerios is a cup and a quarter, a serving of granola is a quarter of a cup, a serving of Kashi Go Lean Crunch is three-quarters of a cup. Not user-friendly! Food labels are supposed to make things easier for consumers, providing information so we can make good decisions. Most of the time, the labeling falls substantially short of that goal. We’re therefore confused and a little annoyed at the grocery store. It’s difficult to make comparisons and good decisions unless you can carve out upwards of two hours to grocery shop and you are unafraid to look like Rain Main in the aisles, counting on your fingers and perhaps muttering to yourself. And that’s before I start in with the coupons. Oh, I’ve said too much.

An interesting point as the FDA considers revisions is this: should the serving size rules reflect what (and how) people are really eating? Or what (and how) we should be eating? A reasonable serving size of cereal is one cup. A reasonable serving of chips is about a handful – maybe half a cup or so. But that’s rarely the serving size we end up with. Because we dump cereal into an oversized bowl or scoop chips into two fists, should the serving sizes mirror our overindulgent ways? And – as many people have asked in the wake of requirements that restaurants prominently post calorie counts – will it matter?

If you read that a serving size of something, anything, had 500 calories in it, would that give you pause? Would you eat less? Or, to the horror of food manufacturers, would you not eat it at all? What’s been the effect of label changes on bottles of soda, which now list the “official” serving size of 8 ounces alongside the statistics for the entire 20-ounce bottle – are you drinking fewer sugary drinks, or less of the ones you have? Will any of this make a difference in the battle against obesity, and the many chronic diseases that are its friends?

Not to get political again, but I must mention that a search (admittedly cursory) for updates since 2010 on the FDA’s serving size changes comes up empty. They are, however, hard at work to approve a revolutionary weight-loss drug, though, so … yeah. I would never be so cynical as to suggest that corporations and special interests influence the decisions of our government agencies. Heavens, no. But it’s hard not to point out that regulating serving sizes will piss off food manufacturers, and approving a new drug will delight the drug companies. This way, we’ll take a pill to get skinny and keep eating crap! Yay! Money in everyone’s pockets!

My cynicism is also fueled by industry’s outraged response when the Secretary of Agriculture said in an internal memo to USDA employees that “Meatless Monday” is a neat-o idea that’s worth trying out.  Here’s the scoop on it — an opinion piece, but with the pertinent information:

http://www.cnn.com/2012/08/02/opinion/grossman-cohen-meatless-monday/index.html

The meat folks didn’t like that, not one small bit. As if they’re going to go out of business. As if “agriculture” doesn’t also include plants. As if study after study doesn’t demonstrate that when we back off of meat a little and eat more plant-based foods, we lose weight and feel better. But plants don’t have corporate machines behind them, or puppet Congressmen to squawk their bidding. So the Secretary got his hand slapped by the hand that feeds it. I’ll go off on this issue another time … I can only fit so much indignation in one entry.

Today is Square One, friends. Let’s shake off the cynicism and do what we have to do to stay aware, educate ourselves, and make good decisions.

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