Lifestyle & Belief

Enough with the calorie-counting: Scientists say system is inaccurate anyway


Nutritional information is printed on the wrapper of a McDonald's Egg McMuffin October 1, 2008 in San Rafael, California.


Justin Sullivan

Seriously, who likes counting calories? Even scientists are down on it, slamming the system as old-fashioned and inaccurate during a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) earlier this week, according to Science Magazine

“Our current system for assessing calories is surely wrong,” evolutionary biologist Richard Wrangham of Harvard University said, using a rather appropriately old-fashioned turn of phrase to make the point. The caloric system itself is something of a Victorian relic, having been developed in the late 1880s, said Science.

In fact, the average nutritional label's calorie count isn't just antiquated -- it's completely off, scientists say. The system doesn't account for the energy spent in eating and digesting food or consider how different food properties (cooked or raw, for example) interact differently with internal organs and processes, said Science. 

"Energy harvest from the human diet is consistently misestimated because key features of the digestive process are routinely ignored," event organizers said on AAAS website. "Given the rising prevalence of obesity and malnutrition worldwide, achieving greater accuracy in food labeling has significant global health and economic consequences," they added. 

The calories tallied up for cooked food are particularly prone to error, according to Wrangham, saying that proteins become easier to chew and digest in meat, for example -- meaning you spend less calories to eat, reported Science. The proteins in cooked vegetables also reportedly break down differently. 

New studies on mice also suggest that it takes different energy to digest raw versus cooked food, said Science, while nutritionists have complained for years that the caloric system doesn't allow for the wildly different digestion time for various foods (slow-moving beans compared to quick slurpy soups, for example). 

This is all Wilbur Atwater's fault. Okay, not really, but he was the one responsible for the original system putting four calories to each gram of eaten protein, nine calories to each gram of fat, and four calories to each gram of carbohydrate, said Science.

Atwater was an innovator for his time, but the AAAS panel discussion suggests scientists are ready for Calorie 2.0.