Portion sizes

Portion sizes can influence how much we eat, with larger portions encouraging us to eat more. But the UK Government has not updated their information on typical portion sizes consumed in the UK for over 20 years.

During this time food retailers have used numerous sets of separate information, including from industry, non-government organisations and healthcare professionals. It's a problem because the calorie, fat, salt and sugar information that will be presented on the new front-of-pack labelling is determined by portion size.

We commissioned research to assess how portion sizes in the UK’s main retailers compare to the information provided in the 1993 government publication, Food Portion Sizes. A portion size is the amount of a food that is recommended to be eaten in one sitting.

We compared like-for-like on-pack portion sizes for own-brand food in Sainsbury's, Tesco, Asda and Morrisons, as well as the market leading brand, against the portion size information from 1993.

Portion Distortion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The portion size of several products – including single serve packets of crisps, portions of corn flakes, and cheddar cheese – are all identical to the information provided twenty years ago. Some products have portion sizes that are in fact lower now than in 1993– including ice creams.

However, this pattern is not reflected across the products analysed as a whole, with some showing considerable growth since 1993. In particular, certain bread products and all of the ready meals analysed showed substantial growth in portion size – as much as 98 per cent for one ready meal.

Our research shows that manufacturers have moved away from the Government’s 1993 publication to the extent that this is no longer fit for purpose in helping retailers to size portions appropriately to reflect a 2013 portion size. As a result, this is making it difficult for consumers to compare products across different brands and control their portion sizes.

What government needs to do

The Departments of Health in England and Wales and the Food Standards Agencies in Scotland and Northern Ireland should commission a full review of portion sizes in the UK to assess what an average 2013 portion looks like. These findings should be used to develop accompanying guidance for industry and assist people to make informed choices to help reduce the burden of diet-related ill-health. This review should, as a result of its findings, provide:

  • guidance for industry to enable standardisation of portion sizes
  • guidance on what constitutes a healthy portion, working alongside health experts to produce this information

What food companies need to do

  • stop increasing the portion size of single unit foods and, in some cases, look to reducing sizes in adherence to new guidance
  • adopt the new front-of-pack food labelling scheme
  • ensure that portion sizes are standardised, clearly labelled and easy to understand – empowering consumers to make healthy choices

Governments and administrations in the UK, the food industry, and non-governmental organisations, should also all work to communicate what constitutes healthy portion sizes to consumers.