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Counting calories is one of the main techniques people use when trying to lose weight. But what exactly are calories, and how do food scientists determine whether a granola bar has 100 or 300 calories?
A calorie is a unit of energy, not a measure of weight or nutrient density. The calories you see on nutrition labels, however, are actually kilocalories, or kcals. Food packaging always refers to kcals, even though it just says "calories." One kcal is the amount of energy required to heat 1 kilogram of water by 1 degree Celsius (2.2 lbs. of water by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit), said Grace Derocha, a registered dietitian and health coach at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.
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In 1990, the U.S. government passed the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act, which standardized the information, including calories, that nutrition labels must disclose. That means that before any packaged food in the U.S. hits the shelves, food scientists have to measure its macronutrients and calories. One way to do this is with a tool called a bomb calorimeter.
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This tool directly measures the amount of energy that a food contains, said Ruth MacDonald, professor and chair of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University. To use this tool, scientists place the food in question in a sealed container surrounded by water and heat it until the food is completely burned off. Scientists then record the rise in water temperature to determine the number of calories in the product.
But bomb calorimeters aren't the only way to measure calories. Food scientists also rely on a calculation developed by the 19th-century U.S. chemist Wilbur Atwater, who determined a way to indirectly estimate of the number of calories in...
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