Sunday, November 19, 2006


Nutritional and food labels

The "calorie" has become a common household term as dietitians recommend in cases of obesity to reduce body weight by increasing exercise (energy expenditure) and reducing energy intake. Many governments require food manufacturers to label the energy content of their products, to help consumers control their energy intake. In the countries of the European Union, manufacturers of prepackaged food must label the nutritional energy of their products in both kilocalories ("kcal") and kilojoules ("kJ"). In the United States, the equivalent mandatory labels display only "Calories" (meaning kilocalories); an additional kilojoules figure is optional. The energy content of food is usually given on labels for 100 g and for a typical serving size.

The amount of food energy in a particular food could be measured by completely burning the dried food in a bomb calorimeter, a method known as direct calorimetry [1]. However, the values given on food labels are not determined this way, because it overestimates the amount of energy that the human digestive system can extract, by also burning dietary fiber. Instead, standardized chemical tests and an analysis of the recipe are used to estimate the product's digestable constitutents (protein, carbohydrate, fat, etc.). These results are then converted into an equivalent energy value based on a standardized table of energy densities:

food component energy density
kcal/g kJ/g
fat 9 37
ethanol (alcohol) 7 29
proteins 4 17
carbohydrates 4 17
organic acids 3 13
polyols (sugar-free sweeteners) 2.4 10

Other substances found in food (water, non-digestable fibre, minerals, vitamins) do not contribute to this calculated energy density.

As a rough guideline, recommended daily energy intake values for young adults are: 2500 kcal/d (10 MJ/d, 120 W) for men and 2000 kcal/d (8 MJ/d, 100 W) for women. Children, sedentary and older people require less energy, physically active people more.

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