Does the concept of calories require a rethink?

Calories. Health professionals talk about consuming fewer calories to help with weight loss. Food manufacturers market low calorie foods. Food products display their calories on a nutrition facts panel. But what is a calorie…and do we really understand the measurement?

Turns out, we might not. A calorie– actually, a kilocalorie to be accurate– is a measure of energy. One kilocalorie is the energy it takes to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius. And we measure calories in a food by placing them in tool called a calorimetre and burning them. However, inherent in this approach is the assumption that our bodies can utilize the energy in food as efficiently as fire. This is, of course, ludicrous. But our method for determining calorie counts remains unchanged.

When it comes to soft, hyper-processed foods, calorie counts are likely more accurate. It doesn’t take much to harness the energy from grape juice or fluffy white bread. But what about foods with hard, fibrous cell walls, like almonds? Turns out, that since our body cannot process the fibre, nor will it excel at harnessing 100% of the calorie-containing nutrients of each cell, some of those calories go unabsorbed. The thinking is, the denser the food, the less bioavailable those calories. One 2012 study, looking at actual biological usage of the energy available in almonds found that current caloric values were overestimated by 32%.

What does this mean for apples, oats or steak? Time will tell, as the research pours in. But you can expect that it will take a groundswell in research before the whole food industry is required to revise their nutrition facts. It is just too costly a proposition at this point.

What should you – and your customers – know about calorie counting? That low calories do not a healthy choice make. Just focusing on the calories in food choices greatly underestimates the nutrient-value, ability to manage hunger and overall effect of those foods on human health.

When merchandising healthy foods, leave out the 100-calorie snack packs. Tiny portions of white flour and sugar are never a great choice. A truly healthy food product is made from healthy foods such as fresh produce, beans, nuts and lean proteins.