Food companies -- including some that have pledged to act in the face of rising obesity rates -- routinely exploit labeling laws that allow them to make their products seem less fattening than they really are, according to nutritionists and consumer groups.
But the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which establishes the rules for the food industry, said that it was not planning any action on packaged food labeling and, last month, was considering a new program for displaying nutritional information in restaurants, as well.
The FDA's nutrition labeling regulations were intended to make food labels easier for consumers to understand and help them compare products. But the regulations are a jumble of rules characterized by tiny measurements and peppered with exceptions that can confuse even the most astute calorie counter, especially when it comes to single-serving packaging.
Supermarket shelves are rife with examples of confusing and potentially misleading labels, all perfectly legal under the FDA rules. For example, a 355ml can of Coca-Cola has 140 calories and is considered a single serving; but a 591ml bottle of Coca-Cola Classic lists 100 calories a serving because FDA rules consider a single serving in the larger bottle to be only 256ml.
A package of Maruchan's Oriental Ramen noodles -- long a mainstay of the undergraduate diet -- lists 190 calories and 900ml of sodium per serving on its label, but few consumers notice that each package actually contains two servings. Grandma's vanilla minicookies, a vending machine staple made by Frito-Lay, claims 150 calories, but eat the entire bag, as most people do, and that's 300 calories.
Experts say that part of the problem is that the FDA's own guidelines on serving sizes are based on old data, which is out of step with current portion sizes. For example, according the FDA's calculations, which were established in 1990, a serving of bagel is 55g.
"It's the size of a magnet," said Lisa Young, a nutrition researcher at New York University who has studied how the FDA's serving sizes stack up against what is actually in the marketplace.
"The definition of a bagel is less than half the size of half a bagel," she said.
Consumer groups are calling on the FDA to strengthen its labeling laws and on companies to be clearer in labeling by simply providing the total calories, fat, sodium and carbohydrates in each package, instead of making consumers do the math.
"If people are misled by serving sizes, they could easily consume far more calories than they think," said Bonnie Liebman, the director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington advocacy group.
"FDA's labeling rules for single-serve packages have a huge loophole that companies are thrilled to take advantage of. Companies have no incentive to make the calories, and saturated fat and sugar look high, period. It's quite the contrary," Liebman said.
Marion Nestle, professor and chairwoman of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University, said that when it came to food labeling, food companies should model themselves after the fast-food industry. Many fast-food restaurants including McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King and Subway provide nutrition information that lists the full amount of fat, calories and cholesterol in each food item, even though the information is usually on a separate pamphlet and not on the items themselves.