How many servings are there in a single-serve cup? The answer might surprise you


I was in the grocery store, and there was a sign advertising a new product.

Delight in a cup
Your favorite XYZ Ice Cream
Now in convenient single-serve cups.

I took a look at the cup. Seemed kind of big for a single serving. I picked one up to read the nutritional information.

Servings per container: 2

Comments (42)
  1. Dennis says:

    Sadly, I’m not surprised by this at all. At least they disclose the information, but such shenanigans are all too common.

    Reading the nutrition labels is a must on every food I purchase. It often causes me to lose my craving for a particular item. For example, I may really be in the mood for some potato chips, but reading the labels usually changes my mind and I’ll buy popcorn or apples instead.

  2. Dennis says:

    BTW: I HATE the Bing search box. I would much rather have the search results open a new browser tab instead of me having to scroll through hundreds of results in this tiny non-resizable box.

  3. RobertWrayUK says:

    The one that always makes me chuckle (rightly or wrongly so!) is the 500ml Coke bottle here in the UK. I’ve never considered it to be anything other than a "single serve", but the nutritional information on the side is displayed as 2x250ml servings.

    I guess that makes the amount of sugar seem more palatable!

  4. dave says:

    So why is that not a violation of some truth-in-advertising law?

    It looks like a straightforward lie to me: advertising something as a thing and then denying that it is in fact that thing.

    Although I suppose that maybe there’s no real reason why you couldn’t call a 55-gallon drum of ice cream a "single serving". (Just don’t write "servings per container: 1760" on it).

  5. Shawn says:

    Share it!

  6. D. Garlans says:

    I believe that "serving size" is a standard unit that the FDA uses depending on the type of food.

    So when the cup says "single serving" but the nutritional facts say "2", basically you’re seeing that the single serving is actually twice the recommended healthy amount of the food.

    It’s not so much false advertising, so much as an inconvenient reminder that most of us Americans eat way, way, way too much….

    This site explains it all quite well:

    http://www.fda.gov/Food/LabelingNutrition/ConsumerInformation/UCM078889.htm

  7. Ivo says:

    Yeah, the new Bing search box is awful! Besides being too small, its scrollbar is hidden behind the scrollbar of the main web page (At least on my computer when viewed in IE8). The problem seems specific to Raymond’s blog though. The one on Michael Kaplan’s blog is not so close to the right edge of the page and doesn’t go offscreen.

  8. Maurits says:

    +1 on the Bing search box being awful.

  9. njkayaker says:

    "the single serving is actually twice the recommended healthy amount"

    Interesting bit of editorializing here.

    If you choose to eat two apples (ie, two servings), it would be hard to argue that the "extra" apple is magically less healthy.

  10. Brian says:

    I fail to see the connection between the serving size of ice cream and the bing search box.

  11. James Schend says:

    dave: It’s not the ice cream maker’s fault that the store decided to advertise it as "single serving."

    In any case, isn’t a false advertising lawsuit a little overkill for something so petty? No wonder there are so many lawyers.

    Brian: off-topic Bing rant is the new off-topic Vista rant!

  12. D. Garlans says:

    @njkayaker: Well, yes, true, when it comes to stuff that’s actually good for you, you’re right. In this present case of ice cream, however, it’s debatable about how healthy it is in the first place, so double the amount is likely going to be more unhealthy.

  13. Someone You Know says:

    @Brian

    The Bing search button overflows its container and spills offscreen.

    This is a single-serving container of Bing with at least two servings in it.

  14. hexatron says:

    The FDA has noticed this and may act:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/06/business/06portion.html

    One Bowl = 2 Servings. F.D.A. May Fix That

    In the NY Times, Feb 5 of this year.

  15. Marquess says:

    To get some perspective for the Bing-complainers: For me (with Opera), the Box stays disabled with “Loading…” displayed. Good thing Bing and that other search engine support site:domain.com/directory/ syntax.

  16. Mac says:

    @njkayaker: something tell me that the fiftieth apple you eat in one day will actually be less healthy than your first.

  17. Gabe says:

    It makes sense to have government-mandated portions for nutritional information, so you can compare products without having to use a calculator. Otherwise every brand of ice cream would use a different size scoop as the basis for their labels and any direct comparison would be deceiving.

    According to the article posted by hexatron, the problem is that the FDA used surveys to determine what serving sizes should be, but the surveys were old (maybe Americans ate less in the 70’s) and people may tend to underestimate how much they eat.

    But the they can’t just double the serving sizes to reflect what people actually eat, because then it sounds like the government is telling you that it’s OK to eat a half-dozen Oreos. So for now we’re stuck with single-serving packages that contain 2.25 FDA-servings.

  18. Joe says:

    The bing search box is awful. (So is the stupid Google box.)

    I always cracked up over the service size with bags of potato chips or pretzels. Then again, I generally only read the labels out of boredom. (For prepared food, I do look at sodium content. Not for health reasons, but because I don’t like really salty food.)

  19. Sean says:

    njkayaker said:

    "If you choose to eat two apples (ie, two servings), it would be hard to argue that the "extra" apple is magically less healthy."

    Actually, it may well surprise you that the recommended daily intake guidelines of the vast majority of foodstuffs is plucked from thin air. Basically, an RDA (reccomended daily allowance) figure was demanded, so they just made up numbers that seemed about right.

    I kid you not!

  20. Dan says:

    People love big helpings, but they hate reading big numbers in the nutritional information.  So make the serving size smaller and instantly, the food appears healthier and the company didn’t have to change it!

    At least, that’s what the Cynicism Fairy told me.

  21. Lawrence says:

    In New Zealand, the nutritional information is required to have two columns of data: the "per serving" and the "per 100ml" (or 100gm) column. So companies can’t hide by manipulating the arbitrary "serving-size". Very handy for comparisons!

  22. Timothy Byrd says:

    "I believe that "serving size" is a standard unit that the FDA uses depending on the type of food."

    I doubt that.

    Here’s a story from my experience. I like bacon – what my Irish friends call streaky bacon – but switched to turkey bacon because it is supposedly less unhealthy. Here in Southern California, I can find several "name brands" of turkey bacon at the supermarket.  The brand I prefer is call JennyO, and from reading the label it seemed to have less fat at 40 calories per serving of two slices. Another brand (called "X" because I don’t remember which one it was) tasted too fatty to me and indeed did have more fat coming in at 70 calories per 2-slice serving.

    One day I was shopping and noticed the packages of "X" were marked as "Only 35 calories per serving!!!!". Sure enough, the serving size had been changed to one slice.

    Since then, JennyO, who must have been shunned by dieters because of that extra 5 calories per serving, has also cut their serving size in half to a single slice.

    I wish we had standard packaging sizes – like when bakers could be fined for selling short-weight loaves. I’m used to packages of potato chips and such continually being reduced in amount, but in the last year, the quart containers of a big name mayonnaise have been changed from 32 to 30 oz.

  23. Jonathan says:

    Lawrence: Israel is the same. Actually, the only confusing packages are stuff imported from the US. I always thought it was a metric vs. Imperial measures thing.

  24. Puckdropper says:

    Some items, such as 20 oz bottles of pop have both the standard serving size nutrition information and the information for the container.  I’m not sure if it’s only done with pop, or if other containers intended to be a single serving have it.

  25. Gabe says:

    Timothy Byrd: It sounds like some products have official FDA sizes, while others don’t so the manufacturers have to make one up. Another possibility is that some products have multiple possible serving sizes.

  26. njkayaker says:

    D. Garlans "@njkayaker: Well, yes, true, when it comes to stuff that’s actually good for you, you’re right. In this present case of ice cream, however, it’s debatable about how healthy it is in the first place, so double the amount is likely going to be more unhealthy."

    It isn’t really debatable that a serving or two of ice cream will have any impact on anyone’s health. It isn’t clear that any "over indulging" is occurring or that people would not commonly eat the quantity in the container that happens to be "two servings". Put another way, the serving sizes don’t have any direct correlation to a "healthy" quantity. Nor is ice cream, eaten infrequently, measurably "unhealthy".

    While the container will likely encourage eating "two servings", the consequences to that person’s health (if any) would only result after eating many, many of these containers (ie, if that person ate ice cream frequently).

    Mac "@njkayaker: something tell me that the fiftieth apple you eat in one day will actually be less healthy than your first."

    That’s kind of what I was getting at. A single instance of ice cream (even two servings) isn’t "unhealthy".

  27. njkayaker says:

    sean: "Actually, it may well surprise you that the recommended daily intake guidelines of the vast majority of foodstuffs is plucked from thin air. Basically, an RDA (reccomended daily allowance) figure was demanded, so they just made up numbers that seemed about right."

    No, it would not surprise me at all. It’s the part of why I have a problem with the "two servings is unhealthy" argument.

    I think part of the basis of serving sizes is related to the amount of kilocalories they contain and the recommended total daily kilocalories (eg, 2000).

  28. njkayaker says:

    Timothy Byrd "One day I was shopping and noticed the packages of "X" were marked as "Only 35 calories per serving!!!!". Sure enough, the serving size had been changed to one slice."

    There certainly is a problem with using nonstandard/vague measurements like "slice".

    It appears that bacon has a standard serving size of 14-15 grams.

    http://caloriecount.about.com/calories-louis-rich-turkey-bacon-i7254

    http://www.jennieo.com/products/BreakfastMeats/ExtraLeanTurkeyBacon.aspx

    http://www.hormelfoods.com/brands/hormel/BlackLabelBacon.aspx#

  29. Shawn says:

    My favorite:

    Serving Size: 3/4 of a pickle

    I think they were going for the 5 calories/serving and picked the serving size based on that.

  30. askldjd says:

    Sounds about right. It’s a single serving for Americans.

  31. Worf says:

    CBC Marketplace did an expose on that as well – laws that limit sugar intake on foods marketed to kids. Some manufacturers complied, but some like General Foods cheated.

    http://www.cbc.ca/marketplace/2009/lawless_loans/busted.html

    Ditto on the “no trans-fat” stuff – “no” doesn’t mean zero (trans fats are naturally present in meats), so manufacturers cut the serving size down to count under “no”. (off topic – where did this whole “trans-fat = yummy” come from? You can get fried foods without using hydrogenated oils…)

    Restaurants are also opposing bills to put calorie counts and/or full nutritional information on menus (while fast-food joints have been doing it for years). Sometimes that salad *is* worse than a Big Mac! But also because that plate of food can be ridiculous and be several day’s worth of calories.

    http://www.cbc.ca/marketplace/2007/11/07/calorie_confidential/

    http://www.vancouversun.com/life/food/rate-your-plate/index.html

    Only thing is, a restaurant has a fixed portion size – you try convincing someone that plate is really meant to be shared by 3 people.

  32. DennisP says:

    Sorry about my off-topic post about the search box. I actually wanted to send Raymond a private note about this, but couldn’t find any place to do so. If someone could point me in the right direction, I promise not to do it again. :-)

    [As already noted in the Suggestion Box, I don’t control the blog software. (Though I do control the custom CSS, if that turns out to be the source.) I don’t use the search box myself (I have a local archive of my posts). -Raymond]
  33. dude says:

    1 cup may be enough to serve 2 girls, but not a fat american.

  34. josheinstein says:

    I had enough when I read that the serving size for Vlassic pickles was "about 3/4 of a spear". Who the hell eats 3/4 of a spear and puts the 1/4 back in the jar? It’s not even like there’s any nutritional information to hide! It’s a pickle!!!

  35. Marquess says:

    @dude:

    Thanks, I had almost gotten rid of that memory .

  36. Nick says:

    My absolute favorite are Granny B’s Pink Sugar Cookies.  They sell thing in vending machines all over the place, and here are the nutrition facts:

    http://img404.imageshack.us/img404/6498/cookiep.png

    And I’ll bet 98.4% of people eat the entire cookie (it’s a cookie!) in one go.

  37. peterchen says:

    reminds me of this (in german):

    http://www.der-flix.de/index.php?preselect=589

    roughly:

    "free depot, only €7,90/month"

    reaction: "Fool me smarter".

    A reaction I have too, now. Much to often.

  38. Drak says:

    @RobertWrayUK

    250ml or 200ml is the size of a glass. Here in the Netherlands on my 1L Pepsi bottle it says: 1L = 4x (GlassIcon) 250ml.

    (GlassIcon) is a little picture of a glass containing black liquid.

  39. -dan says:

    The FDA and government don’t care about your health.

    They allow artificial chemicals, unsafe preservatives, partially hydrogenated oils in food. Now radiating food and cloned cows and chickens without full disclosure on the label.  

    Serving sizes are usually made smaller because it’s away around the law.  If teh amounts are under a certain amount they are allowed to round down. Remember when Diet Pepsi was 1 Calorie and then became 0 Calories? The serving size of 12 oz can was cut in half to 6 oz.  It’s a miracle no more calories, because of rounding error.

    Oh well…. I’ll take a serving size of The old new thing

    They can do this with any food, just make the serving sizes small enough to get the numbers people want to see.

    It’s all a big scam.  The FDA should be disbanded … actually they should be held liable for their crimes against people.  

  40. Ian says:

    In Australia we share the food regulations with New Zealand – the additional columning listing "per 100g / 100ml" is great for direct comparisons.  We do see the same rubbish with serving sizes here too – happily ignored at least thanks to the extra column.

    Lobbdy groups here don’t play as large a part in the political process so I suppose there’s been less resistance to the introduction of obvious "easy for consumer" comparisons.  Sideways comment: I still recall the episode of "Hollow Men" (like the West Wing but a comedy) where the junk food companies formed the "Nutrition Council" to lobby against some government program :)

    We’ve also recently introduced unit pricing on grocery items – wonderful.  (although some supermarkets such as Aldi have had it here for some time anyway).  It’s nice not to spend 10 minutes in front of the nappies (diapers – strange word?) at the local supermarket working out the price per nappy in the various brands/pack sizes and rechecking your maths because you can’t believe there would be a 20c/nappie difference in what is essentially the same product :)

  41. Boris says:

    In the US I don’t know if there is a law about unit pricing, but most supermarkets have them (while pharmacies, convenience stores, etc don’t). However, the unit thing is subject to the same manipulation as the serving size. For example, if I want to figure out whether a 24-pack of spring water bottles is cheaper per unit than a 3-gallon pack, I can’t directly compare because for gallon containers the unit price is usually per quart, but for bottles it might be per 18 ounces. And now that 3-liter water bottles have been introduced alongside the gallon, the confusion is even worse without uniform per-unit prices. Is 99 cents per three liters cheaper than $1.19 per gallon. It sure looks like it should be as the containers are nearly identical in size. Well, it’s not it’s equivalent to $1.25 per gallon.

  42. Brian Tkatch says:

    Nutrition facts are informative. Instead of telling people what to do they let people make the decision themselves. This was a wonderful decision by the FDA. They also spent time and effort working with the community on this label.

    The serving size is really just a unit multiplier/divider. Sometimes it makes sense (14 chips, 1 tablespoon) and other times its done to keep the calorie numbers down.

    When it argues with the advertising, enjoy the fact they give you two ways of looking at the same thing. This is a good thing.

Comments are closed.