Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Portion Distortion: A Study of College Students

Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Portion Distortion: A Study of College Students

Article excerpt

This study compared designated serving size to actual consumption (portion size). Forty-two college students estimated portion size and serving size of cereal, candy, and punch. Most (81%) refer to package labels, and over a third of women identified serving size as "of major interest." Only one-third accurately estimated the serving size of cereal within 10 % of the correct amount. The stated serving size of cereal and punch was less than half of the portion size. Increasing serving sizes to more closely correspond to portion sizes would benefit consumers by providing information more likely to represent the nutritional quantities commonly consumed.


Rising rates of obesity in the United States correlate with increasing portion size (Critser 2003; Nestle 2003; Nielsen and Popkin 2003; Rolls 2003; Smiciklas-Wright et al. 2003; Young and Nestle 2003). While monitoring the quantity we consume appears to be a rational means to combat this staggering health crisis, a number of factors are undermining this basic tenet of healthy eating. In addition to concerns over a host of environmental factors that result in consumers unwittingly increasing their consumption (Wansink 2004), nutritionists also decry efforts by the food industry to boost consumption in order to augment sales (Brownell and Horgen 2003; Nestle 2002). Since the middle of the twentieth century, eating larger quantities of food has been promoted through expanding portions in prepackaged meals and in restaurants (Center for Science in the Public Interest 2003). Such trends are alarming, given the tendency for consumption to increase commensurate with enlarged portion size (Hannum et al. 2004; Rolls 2003; Rozin et al. 2003).

Ballooning portion size may have occurred in part because food manufacturers are not in compliance with a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation that serving sizes reflect the amount usually consumed (FDA 2004). Serving sizes found on product labels that inform consumers about the nutritional value of a given amount of a product frequently underestimate actual consumption (Chambers, Godwin, and Vecchio 2000; Hunter 1992; Rolls 2003; Rolls, Morris, and Roe 2002; Smiciklas-Wright et al. 2003). In addition, the extent to which consumers can accurately gauge the amount of food that constitutes a product's designated serving size is in need of further study. If individuals do not realize that their portion sizes commonly exceed the serving size, then the data ostensibly informing consumers about their intake could be misleading, turning nutritional labeling from a help to a hindrance in the nation's battle to curb obesity.

Previous researchers have addressed questions about disparities in serving portion sizes by asking subjects to recall food intake using portion-size aids (Chambers, Godwin, and Vecchio 2000) or by measuring whether consumption mirrors investigator-allocated variations in portion size of the same food (Rolls, Morris, and Roe 2002). In determining how accurately individuals gauge the amount equivalent to a serving size, one technique required respondents to assess whether a standard serving of various foods was most like a golf ball, baseball, etc. (American Institute for Cancer Research 2003). In our study, participants actually measured out the amount that they believed constituted a serving size, a method that more closely simulates a person's eating behavior. We avoided inaccuracies inherent in recall by individually weighing food items for each person and by requesting that participants indicate their normal portion size (rather than react to pre-served amounts). We also attempted to determine whether bowl size affected portion size (as predicted by past research) (Wansink and van Ittersum 2003) and what nutritional labeling information proved to be of greatest interest.

Although past reform has resulted in more informative nutritional labeling of food products, we need to consider further modifications once we accumulate additional data about consumption norms of various products and individuals' ability to assess what constitutes a serving size. …

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