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The Reference Amount: What is it?

Do you wonder who decides what a serving size is? How is it decided? Why it can be so inaccurate at times? Look no further.


The RA"Reference Amount:" see post.

The RA, or Reference Amount, is the quantity the FDA decides that is the amount of food the average American eats or drinks at one time. It is based on the common, intended use for the product, like the amount of milk someone drinks, not the amount of milk someone uses to cook their hot chocolate.

See also: What’s on the Nutrition Label?


Note that serving sizes are made on the assumption that the product will be consumed by someone older than 4 years old. In the case of items made specifically for toddlers or infants, like baby food, the serving size is the amount the average toddler / infant will eat in one sitting.


The serving size has to be made in accordance with the Reference Amount. Exceptions to this are for meal products or main dishA food that makes a large contribution to a meal. It must... More products, because they contain combinations of foods. Also, if the food is intended for weight control, the manufacturer can decide the serving size.

See also: Who Decides What a Serving Size is, Anyway?


Hey, that seems alright. There are regulations in place to make sure a serving size is legitimate and accurate to avoid tricking those who don’t read the labels too closely. The problem is, the Department of Agriculture took its census (consisting of nationwide surveys and studies) in the late 1970s and 80s! The information is credible, but 30 years outdated!

stevia-servingAn image of the Serving Per Container of a sugar substitute


Some examples?


Snacks: All varieties, pretzels, popcorn, extruded snacks, fruit-based snacks (e.g., fruit chips,) grain based snack mixes — 30g.

Desserts: Ice cream, ice milk, frozen yogurt, sherbet: all types, bulk and novelties (e.g., bars, sandwiches, cones) — 1/2 cup-includes the volume for coatings and wafers for the novelty type varieties

See also: How to Understand and Apply the Nutrition Facts


In English, 1/6 of a can of Pringle’s, 1/4 to 1/5 of a soft pretzel, and 1/4 of a Ben & Jerry’s milkshake. Let’s face it, that is just not realistic these days.

See also: How are Nutrients and Calories Rounded?


The Light at the End of the Tunnel

But all hope is not lost. The government realized this, and made/amended/modified several rules for nutrition labels, the RA being a key component of this update. But we will just have to wait, because the rules will not go into effect for at least a couple of years. Read more about the upcoming changes here.


To Summarize

Thankfully, manufacturers can’t choose to throw on some arbitrarily small serving size and tell you their product has next to no calories. They need to follow specific guidelines for their food or drink. On the other hand, the guidelines they need to follow are outdated and, in the all-too-common case of bite-sized servings, trick consumers into eating far more calories than they think. Be on the lookout for the “Servings Per Container.”

See also: Get to Know Your Nutrients


Thanks for reading!




Electronic Code of Federal Regulations. Title 21, Chapter I, Subchapter B, Part 101, February, 2016. Accessed September 10, 2016.

Nutritionix. Food database, Accessed September 10, 2016.

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