As a registered dietitian working in a regulatory role, I LOVE labels. I also love Oreos, but this post is about the former not the latter. Rob laughs at me when we grocery shop because I’m always stopping the cart to read labels!
Nutrition information is readily available on food and beverage products, but have you ever wondered about the Serving Sizes for specific foods? In this three part series about Serving Sizes, I will be showing how the Serving Sizes on food labels are actually a bit more complex than you may have realized! For example, did you know that Serving Sizes in Nutrition Facts Panels (NPFs) are not actually recommendations for how much you should be eating? Rather, these amounts represent the quantity of food consumers are believed to be eating based on national consumption data and research. Kudos to those who already knew this, but when I first learned this, I was completely shocked! I don’t want to get too “technical” but I hope you learn something new from this post.
Serving Sizes are regulated and are based on Reference Amounts Customarily Consumed (RACCs). What exactly are RACCs? Simply put, RACCs are reference amounts of foods or beverages that represent the portions that are believed to be typically consumed in a single eating occasion. There are 139 food product categories with established RACCs, and they can be accessed in the FDA’s RACC tables here.
Please note there are two tables provided. Table I is for Infant and Toddler Foods and Table II applies to all FDA regulated foods intended for the general food supply. I will be referring to Table II in the examples below. The USDA also has a RACC table, but I will be focusing on the FDA’s version. Within the tables, there are 3 columns.
Column 1 - Product Category
This identifies the general class of food and common examples of products
Column 2 - Reference Amount
This identifies the reference amount that should be used to determine the correct Serving Size
Column 3 – Label Statement
This shows examples of how the Serving Size should be listed in the Nutrition Facts Panel
We know that manufacturers should select a Serving Size that is most closely aligned with the RACC for their particular food category. Let’s put this to practice using Oreos vs Oreo Thins as an example. To determine the Serving Size, the following steps should be taken:
1. Identify the correct RACC category in the RACC Table. For cookies, this is:
2. Determine the Serving Size based on the RACC. For products of individual units like cookies, the Serving Size should be the number of whole cookies closest to the RACC (30g for cookies).
Regular Oreos – let’s assume 1 cookie weighs 11.3g. Therefore, to determine the appropriate Serving Size, divide the RACC value by the weight of a single cookie. Then, round this value to the nearest whole number since Serving Sizes should be a discrete number of cookies.
30g ÷ 11.3g = 2.65 cookies ... 2.65 rounded to the nearest whole unit is 3 cookies (34g).
Oreo Thins – let’s assume 1 cookie weighs 7.25g. Again, to determine the appropriate Serving Size, divide the RACC value by the weight of a single cookie.
30g ÷ 7.25g = 4.14 cookies ... 4.14 rounded to the nearest whole unit is 4 cookies (29g).
3. The final gram weight must reflect the actual weight of the Serving Size, even if it differs from the RACC. Therefore, the final labels appear with the following:
Regular Oreos [3 cookies (34g)]
Oreo Thins [4 cookies (29g)]
There are additional complexities when determining Serving Sizes for some product categories, but I hope this example helped illustrate the general process. Keep in mind that Serving Sizes are not recommended portions. The intent of nutrition labeling is to help you make informed choices to fit your dietary needs. Stay tuned for for Part II on Serving Sizes coming soon!