A Blueberry Muffin for Three?

This story was originally broadcast Aug. 13, 2004

What exactly is a "serving" size? If you bought Bravissimo's Frozen "Your Personal Pizza," for example, you might think it's a pizza for one. But according to the label, this "personal pizza" feeds two people. And that's just one of many products with serving sizes that don't make much sense.

We asked some pizza men in New York's Little Italy about sharing a "personal pizza."

"I don't think you could share this with anybody!" said Francesco of Sal's Pizzeria.

We asked Ernie of Pomodoro what would happen if he offered one of these little pizzas to his customers. He said, "They'd throw it back in my face!"

Most people we talked to couldn't believe the recommended serving size for the "personal pizza." One young woman said, "My cat could eat that."

Of course, why should we care what a label says is a serving size?

Well, a lot of us rely on labels to count calories, carbs, and salt, and may not realize that the amounts shown are not per package, but per serving. And what some call a serving is small.

Most shoppers would probably pick up a Swanson's Hungry Man chicken pot pie at the grocery store and assume it's a single serving. After all, it's supposed to feed a hungry man, right? Yet the label says there are two servings per pie.

How about the Bon Appetit blueberry muffin? Most people would eat one for breakfast. And when the label tells you there are just 215 calories per serving, you'd think you were having a reasonably low-cal breakfast. But you might be surprised to see that the label, in tiny print, also says the serving size is one third of a muffin. So, your low-cal breakfast jumps to 645 calories if you're like most people and you eat the whole muffin.

So shouldn't there be some sort of standard on serving sizes? Well, in the early 1990s, the federal government, in its wisdom, thought they solved this problem.

They summoned in the food industry and had them test, weigh and measure 139 different types of food and then the government determined the amount each of us would customarily eat. And then-Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Louis Sullivan declared, "The Tower of Babel in food labels has come down."

So it's the government's mandates that now allow food companies to say a blueberry muffin serves three people. We asked people at the Manhattan Mall in New York City's Herald Square if they would split that muffin up. Their answer? NO!

People seemed to have a good idea about why the food industry is labeling products this way. "It's to make more money, and to make people think they're eating healthier than they are," one woman said.

Right. If the label said that blueberry muffin had 645 calories, who would buy it?

If you like pickles and want one serving, you'll have to throw away some of them too.

One jar of Vlasic pickles we looked at listed three-quarters of a spear as the serving size.

"It's nothing to see people eat three or four pickles at a time," said Tim Baker who owns New York's Guss' Pickles. He explains that a spear is a quarter of a whole pickle. So when you eat three quarters of a spear "you only get three quarters of a quarter of a pickle," he said.

Delia Hammock, a nutritionist at the Good Housekeeping Institute has included other examples of confusing labels in Good Housekeeping Magazine. She says this is important because people worried about their health need to get information and "all of the information on the label is based on that serving size."

So unless people are taking their calculators with them when they shop, Hammock says, it's easy to get confused.

But now you know what to look for. And you know that when it comes to some of these serving sizes, it's time to say, "Give me a break!"