I am so confused. Why don’t the serving sizes in the Food Guide Pyramid match the serving sizes that are on the food labels?
Your keen shopping eyes are correct. A serving is not always a serving. It depends upon who’s dishing out the nutrition information. Here’s the dilemma: While the Food Guide Pyramid and the Nutrition Fact Panel on the label are both valuable sources of nutrition information, they serve different purposes so the servings sizes don’t always jive.
The Pyramid, which is a stacked, visual picture of the food groups and their daily recommended servings, is designed to provide advice for an overall healthy diet. According to the USDA, the serving sizes in the Pyramid are based on a combination of things:
- The portion sizes that people typically eat
- Specific nutrients in the foods such as caloriescalcium and protein
- The relative ease of use
- Traditional serving sizes used in previous food guides.
For example, a serving of cooked or raw cut-up veggies or fruit is 1/2 cup. It’s set at this amount because it’s a typical portion for an individual and is also a cinch to measure and remember.
When it came to figuring out serving sizes in the dairy group, the gold standard was the amount of the calcium in a cup of milk. (A cup of milk provides approximately 300 milligrams (mg) of calcium per cup — a big ticket item.) All the other foods in the dairy group such as cheese and yogurt have portion sizes that will approximate 300 mg calcium per serving.
Ditto for the grains group. In this group, the amount of calories in a slice of bread was the standard of reference. Consequently, all other foods such as pasta, cereal, and rice have serving sizes that approximate the calories in a slice of bread. The Pyramid is designed to easily juggle all five food groups, in healthy proportions, to meet your calorie and various other nutrient and dietary needs, without your having to memorize a ton of serving sizes.
In comparison, the serving sizes on the food label are standardized to help you compare similar products. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) based these reference serving sizes on the amount of the food item typically eaten in one sitting, derived from nationwide food consumption surveys of Americans.
Years ago, the serving size on the food label was left to the whim of the food manufacturer. It made comparison shopping in the grocery aisle an accounting nightmare. For example, a serving of frozen yogurt could have been anywhere from 1/3 cup to 3/4 cup depending on the manufacturer. A health-conscious person would need to go shopping with a calculator to figure out the nutrition info for a similar serving of frozen yogurt. The FDA changed all that by breaking down the foods into almost 200 categories and providing standardized serving sizes in each similar food category. All frozen desserts now have astandardized serving size of 1/2 cup so there isn’t any need to bring the calculator with you when heading to the supermarket.
The Food Guide Pyramid and the Nutrition Fact Panel on the food label definitely work hand in hand. Use the Pyramid to plan how many servings of each food group that you need to eat daily. Then read down the label while in the grocery aisle for the most nutritious food item in each of the food groups.