Health | January 2011 | By Sam Oches

A Super-Sized Dilemma

Fast food customers love big portion sizes, but with nutrition and obesity under more public scrutiny, quick serves are left to decide whether to listen to their customers or to their critics.

In 2004, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock released a documentary, Super Size Me, that made waves across the foodservice sector and among American consumers. By eating nothing but McDonald’s food for 30 days and ordering the Super Sized version of a meal each time it was offered, Spurlock documented the negative physical toll an experiment like his could have on the human body.

The documentary thrust a finger in the face of the fast food industry and ultimately led to McDonald’s discontinuing its Super Size menu offerings just months after the film’s release. Portion sizes within the quick-service industry, many contended, had gotten out of control.

Fast-forward seven years: Calories are joining restaurant menuboards, the Obama administration is putting nutrition and obesity under the microscope, and more consumers are keeping tally of their intake of trans fats, sodium, high fructose corn syrup, and other ingredients.

Once again, experts and consumers alike are calling into question whether quick-service portion sizes are too large.

“I think portion size is a reason that the obesity epidemic is upon us,” says Jayne Hurley, senior nutritionist with the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). “As people have started going to restaurants on a more regular basis, we’ve seen the obesity rates climb as well. I think portion size is a very important factor in turning the tide on this.”

The government agrees. Robert Post, deputy director of the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, says the administration’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans—a report compiled every five years—found for the first time in its 2010 report that portion size was a significant component of the health debate.

“We’re looking at this as a cue here at the USDA, and we know that as we move forward with communicating the Dietary Guidelines and educating consumers, that portion size is going to have to be an important piece of the information, along with calories, and along with limiting foods that are significant sources of solid fats and added sugars and sodium,” Post says.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which was preliminarily released in June but which won’t be made official until early this year, states that “strong evidence documents a positive relationship between portion size and body weight.”

Still, the quick-serve industry—an industry where value tends to be connected to the mindset of “more bang for your buck”—was a $160 billion industry in 2009. It was expected to grow 3 percent in 2010, according to the National Restaurant Association.

With the government saying one thing and consumers buying another, quick serves are left to determine what the right portion size is for them.

The USDA, in its 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (the last officially published Dietary Guidelines report) and MyPyramid online nutrition tool, suggests appropriate portion sizes for average Americans to consume in six food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, meat and beans, milk, and oils.

For an average 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, the guidelines suggest 2 cups of fruit per day; 2½ cups of vegetables; 6 ounce-equivalents of grain; 5½ ounce-equivalents of meat and beans; 3 cups of milk; and 24 grams of oils.

The USDA’s MyPyramid recommends standard serving sizes for various foods. One serving of meat should be 2-3 ounces; a serving of bread should be one slice of white or whole grain bread, or ½ cup of pasta or rice; a serving of fruit should be one piece; and a serving of dairy should be 1 cup of milk, or 1½ ounces of cheese.

But today, with fast food burgers regularly clocking in at a half-pound (about 6 ounces cooked) and other menu options regularly surpassing recommended sizes, nutritionists fear consumers are learning to expect a new kind of normal serving size.

“They’re so much larger than what typical servings used to be that I think the average person now thinks these larger servings are now typical servings, and they’re not,” Hurley says.

In fact, research from the preliminary 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans shows that portion sizes in the fast food industry have increased dramatically in the last half century. The report shows that in 1954, an average hamburger was 3.9 ounces; most recent USDA findings report hamburgers ranged from 4.4 ounces to 12.6 ounces—up to a 223 percent increase.

What You Get & What You Should Get

Food What You Get What You Should Get
Bagel 4 ounces, 4½-inch diameter 1 ounce, 3-inch diameter
Muffin 4 ounces, 3½-inch diameter 1½ ounces, 2½-inch diameter
Cinnamon bun 6 ounces 1½ ounces
Burrito tortilla 2 ounces, 9-inch diameter 1 ounce, 7-inch diameter
Burger bun 1 bun ½ bun
Spaghetti 2 cups, cooked ½ cup, cooked
Rice 1 cup, cooked ½ cup, cooked
French fries 4 ounces 1 ounce
Fried chicken 7–8 ounces 2–3 ounces
Sirloin steak 8 ounces, cooked 2–3 ounces
Deli ham, roast beef 5 ounces 2–3 ounces
Tuna salad 6 ounces 2–3 ounces

The USDA’s MyPyramid tools recommends appropriate, healthy portion sizes for various food offerings. But a look at typical offerings from around the quick-serve industry show many restaurants are serving much more than they should.

Source: “How Much Are You Eating?” Dietary Guidelines for Americans, March 2002. What You Get is based on sample portion sizes at restaurants. What You Should Get is based on USDA MyPyramid recommended serving

Around the Industry

Similarly, french fries went from an average of 2.4 ounces in 1955 to as much as 7.1 ounces in 2002, a 196 percent climb. And fountain soda drinks went from 7 ounces in 1955 to 12Ð42 ounces in 2002, up to a 500 percent jump.

Post says there is a behavioral barrier today preventing Americans from eating the appropriate portion size, a barrier that the USDA and its Dietary Guidelines are attempting to overcome with inspirational and emotional messaging.

“There are tools that will help people understand that a half a cup or a cup of something is a normal portion size,” he says. “Of course, when it comes to food labels and foods that are served in a supermarket, you have that kind of reference information on a label. When it comes to restaurants, you don’t have that recommended portion size or serving size.”

Despite its increased scrutiny of the foodservice industry, the government does not mandate portion sizes. And quick-serve operators are thankful, since many maintain that the right portion size is entirely up to the consumer.

Brad Haley, executive vice president of marketing for CKE, parent company of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., says it isn’t his company’s responsibility to define portion size.

“I don’t know if there is an appropriate portion size,” Haley says. “I think having a range of options allows people to order the burger that they think is right for their needs and their hunger level, and satisfies what they’re looking for.”

Carl’s Jr. burgers include several large options catered to its “young hungry male” demographic. For example, there’s the line of Six Dollar Burgers, which feature a half-pound burger patty. Haley says the company was trying to rival casual-dining burgers at a fast food price, and that it required a size increase.

“If you go to those kind of restaurants, they have burgers that are a third of a pound or more,” Haley says. “That was our goal. We weren’t trying to make a bigger burger just for size’s sake, but to really target this quality standard that was established at casual dining. That led us to a bigger burger.”

But Haley says CKE’s brands also offer smaller burgers, some that are less than a quarter pound, which is 3 ounces of meat when cooked—a suggested USDA serving size. By doing this, he says, the customer is allowed to pick his portion of choice.

Variety is what influenced several brands to add menu items both big and small. While Carl’s Jr. rolls out bigger burgers—a trend that even led to the gimmicky Footlong Burger test in 2010—some companies are offering small-sized offerings. Au Bon Pain, for instance, rolled out its Portions menu in 2008 that included 14 small options that were each 200 calories or less.

Fazoli’s, an Italian concept based in Louisville, Kentucky, made over its menu in 2009. Cathy Hull, chief marketing officer for the company, says Fazoli’s portions of pasta dishes tend to be on the larger side, and that consumers want them that way.

However, the company tested an LTO item in 2010 that offered smaller baked pastas or Mini Bakes that gave customers a wider variety.

“Some are looking at it purely based on price point, and saying, ‘Hey, I don’t want the larger size, I’m not going to take all of it home, but I also don’t want to pay $4.99 or $5.99 for that,’” Hull says. “Others are really using it to manage calories, saying, ‘Help me control my portions so I can manage my calories and my nutrition and feel better about the choices that I’m making.’”

The Mini Bakes were successful in their first test and return to the Fazoli’s menu as an LTO this month with the added message that each is less than 400 calories.

Anthony Leone, the founder of Energy Kitchen, a New York CityÐbased fast casual where everything on the menu is less than 500 calories, says variety on the menu is great. But simply adding some smaller-size portions to menus is not going to change consumer behavior any time soon, he says.

“You would want to give the public the choice to make the right decision, but there’s a reason why the No. 1 at McDonald’s sells so well,” Leone says. “Everybody Super Sizes everything because there is perceived value in larger portions.”

By keeping all of Energy Kitchen’s dishes at the appropriate portion size and less than 500 calories, Leone says, Energy Kitchen doesn’t allow the consumer to make a wrong choice.

The CSPI’s Hurley says that full responsibility does not rest on the consumer when they decide what to eat. Quick serves also shoulder much of the load.

“It takes someone with a lot of self-control to get a 500-calorie muffin and chop two thirds of it off, throw it out, and eat just a third,” she says. “I think people are eating what they’re offered—that’s what you’re getting, that’s what you’re eating. There are some people who will cut it in half and share it with a friend, there are some people who will ask for a doggy bag. But by and large, once it’s on your plate, it’s probably going down.”

Still, quick serves are running a business, Haley says, and in business, market demand wins out.

“If they continue to buy bigger burgers and demonstrate that that’s what they want by virtue of what they buy, then that’s what we’ll continue to offer,” he says. “If tastes change and people gravitate toward the smaller burgers, then we’ll meet that demand. But the consumer tells us what to sell. We don’t make what we want to sell; we sell what people like to buy.”

Although quick serves and nutritionists approach the issue of portion size from different angles, today’s debate is more focused on compromise than placing blame. For example, the USDA’s Post says, portion size wouldn’t be as big of an issue if the large portion size offered more nutritional benefits.

“If it’s a very lean cut of meat or perhaps it’s very lean ground turkey or ground beef to make the product, the portion size may not make much of a difference, because it’s more protein than added sugars or solid fats,” he says.

Post also says portions of healthier menu items like fruits and vegetables should be increased on menuboards.

“Consumers would benefit from knowing they should make half of their plates fruits and vegetables,” he says. “If you do that, you do come at a different direction in dealing with portion size.”

One major factor likely to encourage quick serves to move closer to USDA-suggested portion sizes is the menu-labeling mandate rolling out this year. With restaurants now required to be transparent with their calorie counts, experts agree that smaller portion sizes may be a good way to relieve some of the potential sticker shock.

“The calories on the menu that are right in your face, that’s going to cause people to make different decisions,” Hurley says. “If they see that a child-sized smoothie has 200 calories and the adult size has 500, I think that will make some different decisions right there.”

Hurley also says restaurants will follow the lead of chains like Panera Bread, which allows customers to order half-sized versions of sandwiches and salads.

“You’re sitting there looking at your ham-and-cheese, full-size sandwich with 700 calories or your half-size sandwich with 350, and it’s up to the person what size they want,” she says. “If they’re watching their calories, they’re probably not going to go with the sandwich that has a third of a day’s calories in it before you add a drink or eat dinner.”