What is a
Chemistry and Nutrition Definitions
What is a calorie? If you ask chemists and dietitians to define
"calorie", they will give you two different answers. Let's look at the
calorie definition from a chemist's point of view first.
To chemists, a calorie is the
amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one gram of water
one degree Celsius.
To be more precise, chemists usually
mean the energy needed to heat the water from 14.5 degrees C
to 15.5 degrees C.
They also assume that the reaction occurs at a
pressure of one
A calorie is a very small amount of heat, since one
gram of water is a tiny amount: only 1/28th of an ounce. Today,
chemists seldom use calories to measure energy.
Instead, they usually
measure it in joules. Joules are even smaller than calories. One
calorie = 4.184 joules. Dietitians never use chemistry
joules when they talk about food.
might expect the energy in a food calorie to be similar to that in
a chemistry calorie. After all, one calorie worth of food
like a small amount, doesn't it? It is not! It is 1000 times
the energy in a
chemistry calorie. That is why nutrition books call food
calories kcals, and food joules kilojoules or KJ. One calorie (kcal) =
4.182 kilojoules (KJ).
How do we know the number of calories in a portion of food? Food
scientists could dry the food and then burn it in a bomb
calorimeter, but the heat givien off would not equal the calories we
absorb. The fiber would burn and give off heat, but our bodies don't
absorb many of the calories from fiber. Most of it just passes through
our digestive tract and out.
Instead of using a bomb calorimeter, food scientists use more
accurate chemical tests that ignore the fiber. They measure
how much fat, protein, and
carbohydrate are in the food. Most of our calories come from
one of the
|kilojoules (KJ) per gram
As you can see in the above table, fat has more than twice
per gram of protein and carbohydrates. This is a big reason we
limit our fat calories to lose weight. People who
drink alcohol also get calories from ethanol, at 7 calories
(30 KJ) per gram. Those are calories we don't need.