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The Science behind Calories

The Science behind Calories

Day in and day out, we are exposed to invisible desirable forces. They beseech us from billboards and beckon us during office parties. They’re essential to our lives, but in excess they become dangerous.

Calories. Why do we have them? We need them to function, yet we can’t have too much of some; more of others is better. Why bother even counting calories?

It’s this exact question that restaurants are being posed right now. It’s not that you are being encouraged to change the recipe of your highest-selling dessert. Customers should be able to treat themselves, so if it tastes good, serve it up! Right?

Or…should customers know when they are eating an extremely high number of calories?

The recommended daily intake of calories depends on age, gender, and activity level, but the range for adults is about 1,600 to 2,400 calories, according to WebMD. Yet there are popular dishes being served in chain restaurants nationwide that have nearly or more than 2,000 calories—sometimes in one item alone. To make matters more controversial, plates that seem as though they would be on the healthier side end up being some of the worst.

Take a look at this list from Who would have guessed that an omelet with a side of pancakes from iHop has 1,990 calories in it? Or that an apple crisp from the Cheesecake Factory has double the calories of a regular slice of cheesecake (1,740)? They say meat and potatoes is a nutritious meal, unless you order the herb prime rib from Outback Steakhouse, which Health describes as the “nutritional equivalent of having ordered three 10 oz. ribeye steaks and three sides of garlic mashed potatoes at the same restaurant.” The number of calories in this dish is an astronomical 2,404.

The FDA Wants to Help Inform Diners

Amid an arduous back and forth between lawmakers and the FDA, the FDA made a game-changing decision in 2016. A recent law requires chain restaurants (with 20 locations or more) to include calorie counts on menus. You can read more about it here, along with information about registering with the FDA as a single restaurant, food truck, or small chain.

While your restaurant’s most sinful dish might not even get close to having 2,000 calories, now is the right moment to ask: Just what are we serving our customers?

As it turns out, restaurants that provide caloric information are viewed more favorably by customers.

The Ins and Outs of Calories

Since the discussion of health and calorie intake is hitting the restaurant industry hard, we wanted to provide you with a digestible (pun intended) resource on calories and how they work. We will take the liberty to say that this is not the most scintillating of information, yet it’s important to know the fundamentals.

After all, food is our trade. We need to know what we’re selling.

The Science of Calories: Part 1

A calorie is a unit of energy, or heat.

To be exact:

  1. One calorie is the same as 4,184 joules (measurement of a unit of energy in physical sciences).
  2. It takes 4,184 joules (one calorie) to heat one gram of water at one degree Celsius.
  3. One calorie of food is actually 1,000 calories. For that reason, food calories are more accurately called kilocalories—you might have noticed both terms used on different food packaging. When a food label indicates that a can of soda is 200 calories, it means 200 kilocalories, or 200,000 calories.
  4. Food has the capability to be turned into energy like electricity. For example, 700 grams of corn is roughly 280-ml worth of ethanol.

It turns out that burning calories is not a figurative concept. If you’re curious to learn more about how our metabolism works, we recommend starting your research here.

The Science of Calories: Part 2

Kilocalories (food calories) are made up of three parts:

  1. Proteins
  2. Carbohydrates
  3. Fats

The caloric amount of each component is determined by its weight.

  • 1g protein = 4 calories
  • 1g carbohydrate = 4 calories
  • 1g fat = 9 calories

Let’s say a can of soup with 330 calories has the following:

  • 50g of protein
  • 10g of carbohydrates
  • 10g of fat

You would make these calculations to see how many calories make up each one:

  • 50g of protein x 4 calories = 200 calories
  • 10g of carbs x 4 calories = 40 calories
  • 10g of fat x 9 calories = 90 calories

The Science of Calories: Part 3

To get through the day with enough energy, the right number of calories is needed. This is based on:

  • Basal metabolic rate
  • Physical activity
  • Thermic effect of food (how much energy it takes your body to digest)

When weight is gained, it is measured as 3,500 calories of one pound of stored fat.

Like salt, it’s hard to monitor calorie intake when you don’t know how many calories are in a food item. Restaurants are now being asked to consider the customer’s health for just this reason. Gone are the days of creating menus based on just taste and style. A new era is emerging. Health trends like ancient grains are becoming lifestyles, and the caloric content of a dish is becoming a question of ethics in the industry.

How many times a day do you hear, “Can I have the dressing on the side?” Now consider, would that be different if customers knew how many calories that dressing had?

by Emma Alois

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