Help Yourself to a Culinary History of the USDA Serving-Size Concept : Early Food Guides Helped Lay Groundwork for Recommended Dietary Allowances

Times Staff Writer

Marge Powers, our copy editor, waved a press release about meat buying from the National Live Stock and Meat Board.

"How can they tell people that an 8 1/2-pound roast will serve 25 people? An 8 1/2-pound roast will serve eight people at my house," Marge said.

The Meat Board release stopped rattling, and Marge leaned a few inches over the partition separating our desks, lowering her voice a tad. "In fact," she said, "I think printed recipes are all wrong about serving sizes. I haven't seen one, yet, that gives the serving size people really eat."

Marge, I must explain, has a lust for food and passion for discussing it like few other people I know, partly because of her Italian heritage. "Italians," she says, "know how to enjoy food. They know food. It's like acting. You either have it, or you don't. The Italians do."

And I think she's right.

Anyway, I explained that the National Live Stock and Meat Board was not discriminating against food lovers. They were just giving the standard nutritional serving sizes designed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a guide to healthful eating.

2-Ounce Steak

"Man's requirement for food is much lower than people think," I told Marge. "Did you know that a nutritional (as compared to household) serving of spaghetti is only half a cup whereas most people eat two to three cups? Did you know that a serving of cooked meat is only two or three ounces? Can you see a restaurant serving a two- or three-ounce steak ?"

"I don't care. I can't stand skimpy plates. I mean, what's a party for?" Marge replied.

"I have the same problem myself," I confessed.

I avoid like the plague going to dinner at people's homes where I know serving sizes are USDA standards. That's not my idea of hospitality, either. I might as well be sent to my room without food. I'd rather have bread and water. Starve. Go without.

"I hate going to people's houses where not enough food is served," Marge echoed, as if she had read my mind. "I cut those people off my list a long time ago."

"Me, too," I said, knowing well that I haven't. I am still vulnerable to entrapment. I still find myself driving to a dreaded meal at a friend's house, often wondering, once there, if there will be enough helpings for other guests if I take my full USDA portion, let alone a normal, enjoyable amount of food.

A couple invited us to dinner announcing that because of the demands of their brand-new baby poodle, dinner would be pasta takeout brought in. "Fine," I said, suspecting the worse. There was enough pasta takeout to feed one hungry post-surgery patient. We left their house craving a double-dip hot fudge sundae with lots of whipped cream on top.

The next time they pulled the same invitation I told them I would bring the pasta takeout. "How nice of you," our hostess said. And that was our second mistake.

I had brought enough food for eight. About 24 USDA servings. "Would you like to take home the leftovers?" our hostess asked after a fourth helping of my pasta takeout had been licked off her plate. The leftovers were a limp swirl of angel hair pasta and half tablespoon of tortellini, which would have been just enough for the brand-new baby poodle if the baby poodle had had teeth.

It happens that when this same couple comes to our house, the husband stands over the leftovers in my kitchen and starts finishing off the platters so that "nothing is wasted." "You know, Rose," he says, standing over his 12th helping of my dinner, "you prepare much too much food. I'm sure it's your, umm . . . upbringing, but it's completely out of step with what's going on in the world today ( munch, munch )."

"I know," I say. "It's a disease."

Restaurant Dining

I rarely accept dinner invitations to friends' homes. My idea of dining is eating at a restaurant where I know that the chef, who has at least eight years' experience on an hourly, daily basis, is behind the stove producing a fairly decent product. And the portion will be adequate even when the serving is nouvelle (i.e., tiny). A nouvelle serving, I might add, is slightly larger than a USDA serving.

The history of the USDA serving-size concept is not well documented. According to nutritionist Mary M. Hill and home economist Linda E. Cleveland, writing in a 1970 USDA bulletin, "Nutrition Program News," the concept probably had its start with food guides as early as the 1920s. The early food guides helped lay the groundwork for the Recommended Dietary Allowances, first published in 1941 by eminent scientists serving on the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences, and revised every four to six years.

Back in the '20s, Caroline I. Hunt, a specialist at the time in food and nutrition in the former Bureau of Nutrition and Home Economics (now USDA), is credited with the development of the first food guide as a device for teaching nutrition. Hunt described and pictured five food groups based on the food materials available in most parts of the United States. The five groups thought to provide all the substances required to make the diet wholesome and attractive included vegetables and fruits; meat, milk and other foods depended upon for complete and efficient protein; cereals; sugary foods, and fats and fat foods.

Throughout the years, revisions were made. In 1943, foods were regrouped to include seven basic food groups. In 1954, USDA nutritionists trimmed down the number of food groups and came up with the first daily four-food-group guide for use by individuals throughout the country. The guide allowed for regional and seasonal differences in food supplies and food preferences, as well as vitamin and mineral deficiencies indicated by the several population surveys performed through the years until that time.

The 1954 food guide specified not only the number of servings required each day for good health (using the basic food grouping system as a guide) but also the size of serving, in an attempt to pin down a standard:

In the Milk Group: at least two cups (8 ounces each) of milk for an adult, two to three cups for children under 9 years, three or more cups for children 9 to 12 and four or more cups for teen-agers and pregnant women.

In the Meat Group: at least two servings (two to three ounces of lean cooked meat without bone per serving).

In the Vegetable-Fruit Group: at least four servings, including one serving of an important source of Vitamin C daily and one serving of an important source of Vitamin A at least three to four times a week. A serving of half a cup or one piece as ordinarily served--such as a whole banana or half a grapefruit--was advised.

In the Bread and Cereal Group: at least four servings of whole grain (enriched or restored type). A serving consists of one ounce of ready-to-eat cereal, one-half to three-quarters cup cooked cereal or one slice bread.

Vitamin C foods were made a subgroup of the vegetable-fruit group. Choices listed as good sources were limited to those that supplied about 40 milligrams or more of the vitamin per serving (the daily Vitamin C requirement is now 55 milligrams Vitamin C per serving).

The basic configuration still stands, with, of course, modifications.

Before publication in 1956 of the 1954 food guide, it was reviewed by a number of leading authorities on nutrition, nutrition educators as well as food industry groups with home economists on their staffs. The meat industry groups were unhappy about the serving size of meat (two to three ounces of lean cooked meat without bone). They pointed out that this size serving is smaller than average. Today, the meat industry accepts the concept of three-ounce servings as a healthful solution to meat-eating, according to Mary Jo Feeney, registered dietitian of the California Beef Council, speaking at the Society for Nutrition Education's 18th annual meeting on Monday.

The treatment of milk and milk products, the rationale of which had to do with safeguarding calcium in the diet (through consumption of dairy products, which are considered the best food source of calcium available), met with approval by the dairy industry.

The organizations dealing with bread and cereal suggested five servings from the bread-cereal group instead of four if no cereal was included in the day's meals. Because a serving of bread is not equal in nutritive value to a serving of cereal, this suggestion was taken and incorporated into the guide.

In the 1968 Recommended Dietary Allowance guide of the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, changes were made in the recommendations for some nutrients (Vitamin C and iron and others) that were found to be too low.

Since 1968, the guide's allowances have been revised, using the RDA standards as the yardstick of nutritional adequacy.

The newest revision, which will be announced in September, is based on a reevaluation of earlier RDA data and data studied after the previous RDAs were released. The new evaluation, which has undergone thorough examination by members of the Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences, is in the process of review by outside scientists and groups designated by the National Academy of Sciences.

The reevaluations of the previous RDAs and study of data released since then will likely affect the nutrient recommendations for infants, adolescents and older age groups.

The RDA Recommended Dietary Allowances should not to be confused with the USRDA (U.S. Recommended Daily Allowances). The USRDA was devised by the Food and Drug Administration to be used as the legal standards for labeling foods in regard to nutrient content.

How did the early USDA nutritionists arrive at the amounts recommended?

Devised Point System

A point system was devised to represent the minimum allowance for a particular food group, which also corresponded to half or more of the day's allowance for an average adult. The point system provided a way to check daily food choices to make sure that the food group as a whole furnished the amount of a key nutrient expected of it.

Scientists have established that about 50 nutrients are needed in certain amounts by the human body. Of the 50, 10 are considered so-called "leader" nutrients. They are: protein, carbohydrate, fat, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, calcium and iron. By obtaining the proper amounts of the 10 leader nutrients in the diet, the remaining 40 will also likely be consumed in amounts sufficient to meet body needs.

In the milk, cheese and ice cream group, one calcium point is equivalent to about 30 milligrams of calcium. Two cups (8 ounces each) of milk (the minimum quantity specified for adults) is rated 20 calcium points, which corresponds to about 600 milligrams of calcium.

In addition to calcium, milk is of special value for protein and riboflavin. The protein of milk is of high quality and therefore is efficiently used alone because all the amino acids essential for human growth and development are present in favorable proportions. Milk also supplements the protein contained in bread and other grain products when used with them.

The minimum amount of milk suggested provides about one-quarter of the protein and nearly half the riboflavin recommended for adults, whereas for children, the milk quota supplies as much as half the needed protein and more than half the riboflavin. Cheese and ice cream also furnish these two nutrients.

Contain Vitamin A

Milk products also contribute appreciable amounts of Vitamin A, dependent upon the concentration of butterfat in the product. Those forms of milk from which most or all of the butterfat has been removed, such as skim milk, buttermilk, nonfat dry milk and cheese made from skim milk, contribute little of this vitamin except when fortified with Vitamin A concentrate, as are some fluid products.

Whole milk normally contains small amounts of Vitamin D. Milk to which Vitamin D has been added becomes a valuable source of this nutrient. A quart of Vitamin D milk provides the Recommended Daily Allowance for Vitamin D for children.

When fluid milk, or its equivalent in other forms, is omitted from the day's meals or used only in small amounts, calcium, and sometimes riboflavin, is likely to fall below amounts recommended for good health.

In the Meat Group (meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dry beans and peas, and nuts), the foods are important for the amount and quality of protein they provide. Protein is important as a builder of tissue and is a vital part of muscle, organs, blood, skin, hair and other living tissue.

Foods from this group are needed each day in amounts to furnish at least 20 protein points, or about 30 grams of protein, the share counted on for the meat group.

For instance, a two-ounce serving of beef contains 10 points or 15 grams; one egg has four points or six grams; one-half cup cooked navy beans contains six points or eight grams.

Many of these high-protein foods supply considerable amounts of iron, thiamine, riboflavin and niacin. They also furnish other minerals and vitamins, plus variable quantities of fat. The meat group (such as lean meats; variety meats such as liver, heart and kidney; egg yolk, and dry beans) provides about half the iron recommended daily.

Thiamine is widely distributed in foods, but there are a few rich sources of this nutrient. Lean pork is one of the richest. A serving or two of lean pork each week will provide a rich source of thiamine in the diet. Other protein foods that furnish considerable thiamine are dry beans, peas and variety meats.

In the Meat Group, variety meats are exceptionally high in riboflavin. Niacin is found in lean meats, variety meats, fish, poultry, peanuts and peanut butter.

Foods in the the Vegetable-Fruit Group are valuable sources of vitamins and minerals as well as roughage. Nutrients provided by four servings of vegetables and fruit help meet the daily allowances for good health.

Dark-green and deep-yellow vegetables are especially high in Vitamin A, necessary for normal growth and development in children and general health of adults. Vitamin A is needed for healthy skin, including the inner linings of the body, and influences the ability of the eye to adjust to limited amounts of light. Many dark-green vegetables also provide good quantities of Vitamin C, iron, riboflavin and calcium.

To ensure that the share of Vitamin A counted on from this group is provided, foods must provide at least 140 Vitamin A points a week, equivalent to 20 points a day. This corresponds to at least 17,500 international units of Vitamin A value a week, or an average of 2,500 international units a day.

Citrus fruit is a leading source of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), which is a vital part of cellular health, growing teeth, bones, tissue and blood vessels.

In rating citrus fruits and other fruits and vegetables high in Vitamin C, the minimum amount expected to come from this group each day corresponds to 20 Vitamin C points. One Vitamin C point is equivalent to about two or three milligrams of ascorbic acid. A medium orange, for instance, contains 31 points and 77 milligrams Vitamin C; one-half cup broccoli has 22 points and 56 milligrams Vitamin C; 1 medium potato cooked in its jacket contains eight points and 20 milligrams Vitamin C.

Breads and cereals (whole grain, enriched, restored) contain high amounts of thiamine, protein, iron and niacin.

By eating four servings from this group one can meet the daily allowances for bread and cereals for an average adult.

In developing the daily food plan, four servings from this group was figured as three slices of bread and one serving of cereal (one ounce of ready-to-eat cereal or one-half to three-quarters cup of cooked cereal, including rice, cornmeal, grits, macaroni and others). If none of these cereals are eaten, two slices of bread can be used instead, making a total of five slices of bread a day.

When cereals are enriched with iron, thiamine, riboflavin and niacin, an appreciable amount of these nutrients supplement the average diet.

However, for now, diets that provide at least the minimum servings suggested in the guide are considered nutritionally adequate. The guide suggests minimum servings rather than total food needs. Its value as a tool for evaluating diets is ongoing in research studies and surveys. For instance, if a diet has much less milk than the amounts recommended, it is likely to also be low in calcium. If dark-green and deep-yellow vegetables are not included frequently, Vitamin A may be short. And if a citrus fruit or other important source of ascorbic acid does not appear daily, a shortage of this vitamin may occur.

According to Rita Story of the California Dietetic Assn., the government food guide is simply a measuring stick for developing individual standards. "Federal school feeding programs, for instance, make use of the RDAs as a standard, so that each meal in a school lunch contains a third of the RDA for the age group served. Hospitals, on the the other hand, may also use the RDA for typical meals in hospitals," she said.

Here's a list of common foods in each of the food groups according to nutritional serving size.


1 cup (8 ounces) milk, buttermilk, chocolate milk

1 cup (8 ounces) yogurt

1 slice (1 ounce) Cheddar or American process cheese

1/2 cup cottage cheese

1/2 cup ice cream (1/4 pint)


2 ounces cooked meat, poultry or fish, not including bones or fat (1/3 pound raw meat makes two 2-ounce servings when cooked)

2 ounces meat patty or lamb chop

(A 2-ounce serving of meat has the same amount of protein as 2 eggs, 2 slices Cheddar-type cheese, 1/2 cup cottage cheese, 2 cups milk, 1 cup cooked dry beans, peas or lentils, scant 1/2 cup peanuts, 4 tablespoons peanut butter, 2 frankfurters, 6 cooked pork sausage links.)


1 medium apple, banana, tomato, potato

1/2 medium grapefruit or cantaloupe

1/2 cup cooked vegetable

1/2 cup cut fruit


1 slice bread

1 ounce (1 cup) ready-to-eat cereal

1/2 cup cooked cereal

1/2 cup cooked rice

1/2 cup cooked pasta

1/2 cup cooked grits

And here are the suggestions from the National Live Stock and Meat Board on how much meat to plan for serving 10 or 25 people, which started this whole thing, to begin with:

Boneless Cuts:

3 servings per pound

3 1/2 pounds for 10 persons

8 1/2 pounds for 25 persons

Bone-in Cuts:

2 servings per pound

5 pounds for 10 people

12 1/2 pounds for 25 people

"So you see, Marge," I said, "It's all relative when you are talking about nutritional and household servings. No one expects you to conform 100% to the USDA nutritional serving recommendations. They are just a guide, not an end-all."

Marge wasn't listening. She was on the phone.

"Dinner? Well . . . Can I have a rain check?" she was telling someone on the line.

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