Down for the 'calorie' count

Calorie counting methodology study by USDA raises more questions

August 8, 2012
alyse thompson
Alyse Thompson

In an age when counting calories has become just as important as counting nickels and dimes, a new study on how those calories are counted  could give dieters the trick they’re looking for. Or so it seems.

The study, conducted by U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), says that a 1-oz. serving of 23 almonds contains only 129 calories — 20% fewer than the 160 originally calculated.

That’s great, right? Almonds, in addition to offering plenty of fiber and protein, can now fit into consumers’ diets even easier than before. As a result, farmers and processors are sure to benefit from the related increase in demand.  

In short, everyone from the grower to your mom can continue to benefit from the oval — and apparently less caloric — fruit.

It’s all too good to be true, if you ask me though.

For the study, researchers used a procedure different from the traditional Atwater system, which has been used for about a century to determine caloric values based on the amount of protein, fat and carbohydrates in the food.

Typically, a gram of protein and a gram of carbohydrates each count for four calories, while a gram of fat counts for nine calories.

With the new system though, USDA researchers measured the amount of energy test subjects actually gleaned from the almonds. And since the subjects didn’t actually absorb all of the calories, the official calorie count “decreased.”  

These results suggest a technicality — actual absorption — is at play.

Why does it matter, you ask? The consumers are taking in less calories than they thought, after all. They are, but the issue lies with the possible motives for doing this. It may or may not be completely in the interest of the consumer.

Of course, supporters of the study would suggest that this method is actually a way to calculate more accurate caloric estimates, but the USDA’s system still delivers just that: estimates. There is no way to ensure every consumer will absorb the same amount of calories.

Granted, many say the Atwater method is also imprecise, since it doesn’t take into account individual samples. That’s true, but its generality helps both dieters and manufacturers.

Manufacturers can efficiently calculate Atwater totals since it offers a simple formula that doesn’t require them to consider their products’ effect on each individual consumer.

If the industry is concerned about providing precise caloric values, they can always use calorimeters —  devices that burn food products and measure the heat they release — to determine more exact values. But, that goes back to the simplicity issue, since burning every product in a calorimeter takes both time and money.

Certainly, offering reasonable calorie counts to consumers is important, considering the consumer base is now more health-conscious than ever before, but I don’t think that means we should cook the books, in a sense, to get the numbers we want.

Otherwise, given the skepticism many consumers have for food alerts, the public might view this as just another “shell game.”

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