Why understanding serving sizes is a life saver

What kind of skill could one day save your life?

If you are like most people, you might imagine abilities like treading icy water for hours, safely landing a plane, or maybe fighting off hungry polar bears.


Calculating the sugar content of different portion sizes is probably not high on that list, but this is actually a skill that could save your life – if you do it every day.

That’s because the portion sizes that companies print on the labels of their food do not tend to reflect the portion sizes we actually consume.

Many products, such as cereals, use the results of 1970s surveys to suggest that a portion size is 30 grams.  But product sizes and our habits have changed since then, and this can obscure how many grams of sugar we’re consuming.

One recent US survey showed every single person pouring themselves more than the recommended serving, with most opting for around double – and therefore double the sugar. Kellogg’s Coco Pops use this 30 gram serving size to tell us a serving only contains 11.2 grams of sugar, while a more typical 60 gram serving would contain 22.4, very close to the World Health Organisation’s suggested safe added sugar consumption level of six teaspoons (24 grams) per day.

And how much is a “serving” of ice cream? According to the label, a serving size of Blue Ribbon vanilla ice cream is officially 43 grams – less than half a cup. This contains 7.7 grams of sugar, which is well within that daily healthy maximum of 24 grams.

So far, so good.  But one party planning site suggests people generally eat about three 68 gram scoops of icecream, which would make the sugar content more like 36.5 grams – more than one and a half times the daily sugar allowance.

At a time when sugar is fuelling an obesity epidemic, causing an increased incidence of long term health problems like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and strokes, this accidental sugar consumption could be taking years off your life. It can also be making life miserable, with inflammation and extra weight from eating too much sugar affecting our joints, sleep and other day-to-day functions.

In fact, there are worries that the current generation of young people might be the first to live shorter lives than their parents.

In Australia, there are currently no rules about what a food label “serving size” should consist of – so it’s up to us to use our smarts to get around these label weasel words. Calculating the sugar in different portion sizes is one of those skills like cyber safety, that young people need to learn to navigate today’s world safely.

You don’t need to limit yourself to the serving size that companies have chosen for their labels. But you do need to understand how to calculate the true sugar content of the serving size you choose.

Over the long term, your life depends on it.