A new study by the European Food Information Council (Eufic) and researchers at the UK's University of Surrey looked at how consumers interpret and use portion size information on food and drink labels.
Carried out online among a total of 13,117 consumers in France, Germany, Poland, Spain, Sweden and the UK, the study claims to be "the most comprehensive study on consumers and portion information in Europe".
According to Eufic, the survey results demonstrate that providing portion information in addition to per 100g/100ml information on food and drink packaging is useful for consumers and helps them "use nutrition information correctly".
Although only one third of respondents looked for portion information on packages, nearly half said it was relevant to them. Depending on the country, the relevance of nutrition information per portion ranged from 70% in Spain to 36% in Germany.
The respondents who agreed that portion information is relevant for them explained that the data help them to determine the number of portions in the package. This allows them to better decide what amount to buy and monitor how much nutritional intake they get based on the quantity they eat.
However, depending on the food types, the respondents found that the portion sizes were not always accurate and complained that they were too small, rather than too big. They were also uncertain about what factors determine portion sizes, generally believing that it was food producers who decide.
According to the study, price and 'best before' information are the most useful data, with almost 90% of consumers looking for this information.
New EU rules on presenting food information
The study results serve to support a voluntary industry scheme of guideline daily amounts (GDAs), which has already been adopted by several large manufacturers. The GDA system estimates the average daily energy and nutritional requirements for human consumption and provides the percentages of each that are contained per portion of a product.
However, critics argue that GDA labels can sometimes be misleading, particularly for portion sizes. If food manufacturers choose a small portion size, they are able to calculate nutritional values that make even products that are high in sugar or fat 'look good', the critics note.
Both the Parliament and EU ministers back mandatory labelling for energy value and nutrients per 100g or per 100ml, but say that the values may also be indicated as a percentage of reference intakes (GDAs) and per portion.
However, these additional forms of expression or presentation could only be used "provided that they do not mislead consumers and are supported by evidence of understanding of such forms of expression or presentation by the average consumer".