Proceedings of the Nutrition Society

Irish Section Postgraduate Symposium

Session 2

Serving size guidance for consumers: is it effective?  *

Nutrition Society Irish Section Annual Postgraduate meeting hosted by the University College Cork, the Radisson Blu Hotel, Cork, Republic of Ireland. 15–17 February 2012.

G. P. Faulknera1, L. K. Pourshahidia1, J. M. W. Wallacea1, M. A. Kerra1, T. A. McCroriea1 and M. B. E. Livingstonea1 c1

a1 Northern Ireland Centre for Food and Health (NICHE), University of Ulster, Cromore Road, Coleraine BT52 1SA, Co. Londonderry, UK


Larger portion sizes (PS) may be inciting over-eating and contributing to obesity rates. Currently, there is a paucity of data on the effectiveness of serving size (SS) guidance. The aims of the present review are to evaluate SS guidance; the understanding, usability and acceptability of such guidance, its impact on consumers and potential barriers to its uptake. A sample of worldwide SS guidance schemes (n 87) were identified using targeted and untargeted searches, overall these were found to communicate various inconsistent and often conflicting messages about PS selection. The available data suggest that consumers have difficulty in understanding terms such as ‘portion size’ and ‘serving size’, as these tend to be used interchangeably. In addition, discrepancies between recommended SS and those present on food labels add to the confusion. Consumers generally understand and visualise SS best when expressed in terms of household measures rather than actual weights. Only a limited number of studies have examined the direct impact of SS guidance on consumer behaviour with equivocal results. Although consumers recognise that guidance on selecting SS would be helpful, they are often unwilling to act on such guidance. The challenge of achieving consumer adherence to SS guidance is formidable due to several barriers including chronic exposure to larger PS, distorted consumption norms and perceptions, the habit of ‘cleaning one's plate’ and language barriers for ethnic minorities. In conclusion, the impact of SS guidance on consumers merits further investigation to ensure that future guidance resonates with consumers by being more understandable, usable and acceptable.

(Online publication August 09 2012)

Key Words:

  • Food portion size:;
  • Food serving size;
  • Dietary guidelines;
  • Obesity


c1 Corresponding author: Professor Barbara Livingstone, fax +44 2870 124471, email


*  The authors dedicate this article to the memory of their colleague Professor Julie Wallace (7 April 1971–7 February 2012).