The Alleged Serving-Size Scandal

When you eat Oreo cookies, if you do eat Oreo cookies, how many do you eat? Three sounds sort of reasonable to me. Surely, after three, you have been “served.” If I were a guest at someone’s house and ate more than that, I would try to do it surreptitiously.

But of course, this is all subjective. Maybe you think one Oreo constitutes a serving, especially if eaten with the proper care and technique we all perfected in third grade. Or you could be like a typical teen and think that an entire package is a serving.

Well, it turns out that the small print on the package agrees with me. Three Oreos are a serving, and from that you consume 160 calories and 7 grams of fat.

Why do packages print this serving size, anyway? Since the early 1990s, the FDA has required these disclosures as a means of discouraging overconsumption and generally hectoring business.. Yes, it seems oddly Orwellian: “Big Brother says you should eat only three Oreos.” (Here is the current central plan at the FDA’s site.)

But now the FDA and the usual crowd of do-good agitators suspect that the regulations have completely backfired. Instead of limiting consumption, they are encouraging overconsumption. Presuming that people have cookie dough for brains, the FDA believes that people are being misled into thinking that they can eat as much as they want and still mark only 160 calories on the dietary logs that they are supposed to be keeping themselves.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (let’s call them Science for short) is thereby pushing the Food and Drug Administration to change the whole system. You see, Science is quite convinced that the average guy you know wolfs down probably five or six Oreos at a time — maybe more. Instead of 160 calories and 7 grams of fat per serving, the average Oreo eater puts fully 320 calories and 14 grams of fat down his pie hole in one sitting!

What this means, in the view of Science, is that the FDA is enabling Nabisco to lie to you. Rise up, workers and peasants! Well, not lying, since the package does say that three equals one serving. But hey, do they expect Americans to do complex mathematics at the very time they are dreaming of scraping off the puffy white stuff with their teeth and crunching the remaining black cookie? Surely, in the FDA’s view, this is the most squirrelly form of capitalist oppression one can imagine: These people are understating serving size! Expropriate the expropriators!

OK, you are unconvinced that this is a serious national problem that requires 100,000 bureaucrats to test and retest products, survey and resurvey the public and regulate and re-regulate the printing on the packages of millions of products, all for a cost of untold hundreds of millions of dollars. You are doubtful that an intervention on this scale is going to result in the liberation of the population from their food masters.

I’m with you. But consider the case of the cooking spray Pam. The can says it has no calories and no fat. But look at the serving size: a tiny spritz of one-third of a second. Science says that this is absurd. It estimates that the typical spraying session for Pam is fully six seconds. Once you do that, your total calorie intake soars to (brace yourself) 42!

Well, I had to try this at home. I wonder if the Science people actually ever tried this. Do they not realize how much Pam stuff actually flies out of that can in the course of six seconds? Pam would be dripping everywhere off the pan and onto the floor. I, in fact, was able to cover a six-muffin pan in what seemed to be to be about a quarter of a second. OK, maybe it was half a second, so I added five or so calories to my muffins. Why is this a scandal?

Let’s try another: Cool Ranch Doritos. The officially determined serving size is 12 chips. Again, that seems reasonable to me. Yes, we probably eat more. Or maybe we don’t. How does the FDA know, and why is it the government’s business how many chips I eat? And that doesn’t count the dip, which is probably 300 calories per drop, but let’s not even go there.

Two other cases that are frequently cited to illustrate how the capitalists have used serving size to mislead the population: Haagen-Dazs pints and Campbell’s Soup. A serving size of this particularly rich and dense ice cream is listed as half a cup. Again, this is probably what the angels of our better nature would have us eat. Something about this ice cream wards away those angels.

Same with soup: One can is two servings, but now Science and the government have determined that many people eat an entire can, thereby consuming all the recommended salt intake for a day in one sitting!

Consider, however, what happens if government imposes new mandates to double the reported serving size so that people can have a greater sense of alarm about the full reality of what they are consuming. This way, the serving size of Haagen-Dazs and Campbell’s is thereby doubled.

Why wouldn’t this signal the dough-brained consumer to double his or her consumption of these items? If you stuck to the original serving size, you could declare yourself to be on a diet. “I only ate half of what the package said is a serving!”

It strikes me that we are dealing here with a fundamental methodological problem. Are these serving sizes intended to be descriptive or normative? No one seems to know. And of course, a normative size is always going to be less than a descriptive size. For this reason, any mandate to print higher or lower quantitative estimates is going to backfire. Consumers read these labels how they want to read them, if they read them at all.

If there is a problem here — and problems like this one seem more invented than real — it is that the food companies are making things so delicious these days that we want to eat and eat ever more and more of whatever we happen to be munching on at the time. In other words, food companies are doing exactly what the consumers want them to do, making their products ever more wonderful for us.

This is a problem? From the point of view of the pro-misery faction of life, headed by Science and government, this is a disaster. So why not go directly to the real source of the alleged problem: good food. The only mandate from the FDA that is going to accomplish anything is a mandate that the food we buy taste like mulch and cardboard — you know, like the stuff in the health food store.

That’s the more-direct means to achieve the central plan. And this is precisely what many socialist governments in the old days achieved: disgusting food of limited availability. This is their heaven, their dream, their goal. Maybe we should all stock up on cookies and ice cream while we can.

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