Food nutrition labels don’t tell the full story: new report

Food manufacturers are displaying large variations in the serving sizei listed on packaged foods and beverages in Australian supermarkets leaving consumers confused, according to new researchii by The George Institute for Global Health and the National Heart Foundation of Australia.

Researchers analysediii data for over 4400 ‘discretionary’ food and beverage products, such as processed meat, confectionary, sweet biscuits, cakes and muffins, crisps and snacks sold across four major Australian supermarkets (Coles, Woolworths, ALDI and IGA) and found huge variations in what constitutes a single serving size.

The study also found around half of the discretionary foods sold in all major supermarkets exceed the Australian Dietary Guidelines serve size of 600kj. Displaying a serving size is a mandatory requirement of nutrition labels in Australia, however determining the exact amount listed as the ‘declared serving size’ is up to each manufacturer, leading to inconsistencies across the products.

Senior author Dr Jason Wu, of The George Institute for Global Health, said the current system may confuse consumers. Dr Wu said: “We found huge differences in what makes up a serve and these inconsistencies could make it very difficult for Australians to understand how much they should be eating at one sitting.”

The report published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that a third (35%) of discretionary foods packaged with intention to be eaten at one sitting, displayed serving sizes smaller than the total package size, breaching Government recommendations.iv

There are even inconsistencies between different sizes of the same product. For example the biggest pack of a leading brand of chocolate bar (Cadbury’s Cherry Ripe) listed the product as containing twelve serves each of 18g, while the smaller version of this product intended to be eaten at one sitting had a declared single serving size of 52g - nearly three times larger.

Dr Wu said: “It’s unrealistic to expect that people will read the serve size and only eat one twelfth of what’s in the pack.  People will generally eat a packet of crisps or a small chocolate bar in one sitting. For these type of products we need to ensure the displayed nutrition information per serve is based on the total package, otherwise people will end up eating much more than they intend.”

Heart Foundation’s National CEO Adjunct Professor John Kelly AM said: “We have found that many of these products are providing multiple serves of junk foods. When you pick up that muffin you’re really eating the equivalent of two or even three, not just one.

“Australia has increasing rates of obesity and very few people are meeting the recommended amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables. Discretionary foods contain few beneficial nutrients and are high in kilojoules and we should be encouraging people to eat less of them, not more, Adj Prof Kelly said.”

Key findings

  • 76.4 per cent of cakes and muffins, 74.5 per cent of pastries, 74.2 per cent of desserts, 60 per cent of protein and diet bars, 54.3 per cent of frozen potato products, 51.7 per cent of processed meats, 50.5 per cent of ice cream and edible ice, and 36.3 per cent of crisps and snacks had serve sizes that exceeded 600kj.
  • A 2 litre bottle of a leading brand of soft drink had a declared serving size of 250ml. But a 375ml can of the same product listed a single serving size of 375ml, a 50 per cent difference.
  • More than two thirds of sugar-based confectionary intended to be eaten at one sitting had a serving size smaller than their package size.

The Heart Foundation says with discretionary food products making up 35 per cent of the Australian diet, there is an urgent need to address declared serving sizes. Adj Prof Kelly added: “These concerns are on the agenda of the Australian Government’s Healthy Food Partnership and its newly established Portion Size Working Group. It's important that the Partnership is well resourced as it moves forward to ensure important issues like portion size are comprehensively addressed.”


[i] The ‘serve size’ is a set amount stated in the Australian Dietary Guidelines. The size of a ‘standard serve’ can be different for different foods  One serve of ‘discretionary’ food or drinks is 600kJ,.

[ii] Haskelberg, H., Neal, B., Dunford, E., Flood, V., Rangan, A., Thomas, B., Cleanthous, X., Trevena, H., Zheng, J.M., Louie, J.C.Y., Gill, T. and Wu, J.H.Y. (2016) ‘High variation in manufacturer-declared serving size of packaged discretionary foods in Australia’, British Journal of Nutrition, 115(10), pp. 1810–1818. doi: 10.1017/S0007114516000799

[iii] The nutritional information was obtained from the Nutritional Information Panel for 4466 packaged food and beverage products at sale in Coles, Woolworths, ALDI and IGA in Sydney Australia.

[iv] The Food and Health Dialogue (FHD) established by the Australian Government in 2009 recommended that is a product is packed in a way that is reasonably expected to be eating in one serving, then the declared serving size should be the same as the package size.