Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Calorie Delusion: Why Food Labels Are Wrong

Maybe one of the reasons some of us are so fat is because we measure calories the wrong way. Calorie counts are created by incinerating food, but we don't burn food up, we digest it.

... Calorie counts on food labels around the world are based on a system developed in the late 19th century by American chemist Wilbur Olin Atwater. Atwater calculated the energy content of various foods by burning small samples in controlled conditions and measuring the amount of energy released in the form of heat. To estimate the proportion of this raw energy that was used by the body, Atwater calculated the amount of energy lost as undigested food in faeces, and as chemical energy in the form of urea, ammonia and organic acids found in urine, and then he subtracted these figures from the total. Using this method, Atwater estimated that carbohydrates and protein provide an average of 4 kcal per gram, while fat provides 9 kcal per gram. With a few modifications, these measurements of what is known as metabolisable energy have been the currency of food ever since.

We know these values are approximate. Nutritionists are well aware that our bodies don't incinerate food, they digest it. And digestion - from chewing food to moving it through the gut and chemically breaking it down along the way - takes a different amount of energy for different foods. According to Geoffrey Livesey, an independent nutritionist based in Norfolk, UK, this can lower the number of calories your body extracts from a meal by anywhere between 5 and 25 per cent depending on the food eaten. "These energy costs are quite significant," he says, yet are not reflected on any food label. Read more

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