February 6, 2020

Why calorie counts aren't as accurate as you think

Daily Briefing

    It turns out, almonds might have fewer calories than scientists previously thought—and that's calling into question the accuracy of the process used to tally calorie counts for all foods, the Associated Press reports.

    Your food label—decoded

    That nutrition label might be wrong

    Under the current system for calculating calorie counts, one gram of carbohydrates and one gram of protein contain four calories each, while one gram of fat contains roughly nine calories.

    But that system, according to AP, is more than 100 years old, and when it comes to some food products, the actual calorie count can vary based on how much of the food is actually digested. In fact, new research conducted by federal researchers and funded by nut producers suggests the calorie count on almonds is lower than the 170 calories per serving they are commonly believed to contain.

    But David Baer, a research physiologist with the Agricultural Research Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and colleagues sought to test whether digestion plays a role in almonds' calorie content.

     "If [nuts are] not digested, then maybe the calorie content is not correct," Baer said.

    To test this idea, the researchers provided 18 people with meals with and without raw almonds and had the participants turn in their urine and stool for analysis. Once the samples were analyzed, researchers found that a serving of almonds had around 130 digestible calories, not 170.

    Years after the experiment, in 2016, Baer and his colleagues tested a new hypotheses, and studied how food processing affected calorie counts. They found that cooking and grinding almonds helped to break down cell walls, which increased the number of digestible calories.

    The second study found that raw almonds had even fewer digestible calories than the first study did, which Baer said is likely due to differences in how people digest foods, as well as variations within the almonds themselves.

    "It's unlikely you're going to get the exact same number every time you repeat the experiment," he said.

    In light of these new findings, last month, snack bar maker Kind announced that it would be lowering the calorie counts for its products, though it wasn't making any changes to the bar's ingredients.

    Daniel Lubetzky, Kind's founder, said he hopes the studies will help counter concerns people have that nuts are too high in calories.

    Do calorie counts still matter? Yes, experts say.

    But while the findings call into question current calorie counts, experts say it's certainly not time to toss out nutrition labels. Health experts say that these counts are still valuable even if they're not precise because they offer guidance on what foods people should and shouldn't be eating to lose weight, AP reports. Baer himself said he still believes calorie counts are generally accurate.

    It's more important to pay attention to your overall diet than small differences in calorie counts, according to Elizabeth Mayer-Davis, a nutrition researcher at the University of North Carolina. "That's not what's going to make or break someone's attempt at weight management," Mayer-Davis said.

    Mayer-Davis said the recent research on caloric counts in nuts won't change her advice that nuts are healthy for you. It's more important to pay attention to how the nuts are prepared and whether things like sweeteners are added, she said (AP/Los Angeles Times, 2/4).

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