Food and Behaviour Research

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11 December 2014 - ConsumerReports - Cereal portion control matters

Deborah Pike Olsen

You could be taking in a lot more calories than you think

Think eating a cereal is the secret to losing weight—and keeping it off? Not so much, if you pour too much into your cereal bowl, as many people do. In fact, in a recent Consumer Reports’ test, many cereal eaters were surprised by how small the serving size listed on the box really is. What’s more, the serving sizes for cereal differ from product to product.

This makes it not only confusing to compare one cereal’s nutrition numbers against another’s but also tough to know what a serving of cereal is supposed to be. The major complicating factor is that the standard serving sizes for cereals are based on density—not sheer amount. So a serving of a low-density cereal, such as Cheerios, might be 1 cup (1 ounce), while a serving of a dense cereal, such as granola, might be only ½ cup (2 ounces).

To learn how much—or how little—the average person understands about cereal serving sizes, we asked 124 consumers at a shopping center in Yonkers, N.Y., to pour themselves the amount of cereal they’d normally eat for breakfast into one of three different-sized bowls—12-ounce capacity, 18-ounce capacity, and 28-ounce capacity. The participants chose Cheerios Original (low density), Quaker Oatmeal Squares (medium density), or Quaker Simply Granola Oats, Honey, Raisins & Almonds (high density). Each serving was emptied into a plastic bag, weighed twice, and averaged. 

Almost every participant—92 percent—exceeded the recommended serving size. They helped themselves to 24 percent to 92 percent more when using a 12-ounce bowl and 43 percent to 114 percent more when using an 18-ounce bowl. But those who used the largest bowl really went overboard. 

Bottom line. You don’t have to stick to the portion sizes listed on cereal boxes, but you do need to know how much you typically serve yourself. Grab your favorite cereal bowl, pour out the amount you normally eat, and measure it. Then do the math so you know how many calories and how much sugars, sodium, and fat you’re really getting at breakfast.