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How to Calculate the Energy Value of Food

How to Calculate the Energy Values of Food

If you’ve ever tried to calculate the total calories contained in food by the macronutrient content but have then become unstuck with your final figure, this article could explain why.

Energy conversion factors

The Atwater system[1] is used in the food industry to determine the total calorific value of food by employing the 4-9-4 method. This system applies energy conversion factors to the macronutrients carbohydrate, fat, protein and fiber. The average values of energy are expressed as the number of calories per 1 gram of the macronutrient. The Atwater general factor system includes energy values of 4 kcal per gram (kcal/g) (17 kJ/g) for protein, 4 kcal/g for carbohydrates and 9 kcal/g (37 kJ/g) for fat[2]. Alcohol is also technically considered a macronutrient and contains 7 kcal/g (29 kJ/g)[2]. For instance, if you have a food that contains 20g protein, you would multiply 20 by 4 to give 80 calories supplied by protein in that food.

A more extensive general factor system has been derived to include organic acids, used in food preservation, at 3 kcal/g (13 kJ/g) and polyols at 2.4 kcal/g (10 kJ/g)[3].

These figures were originally determined by using a bomb calorimeter and measuring the heat of food combustion and the resultant amount of energy the food produces[4].

Practical considerations

There are a number of shortfalls when using the Atwater system to determine the total calorific value of a food. The energy conversion factors are estimates and are therefore likely to be associated with some inaccuracy when compared to the direct assessment method, bomb calorimetry. The energy conversion factors for macronutrients as a whole are not clear cut.

Protein

The calorie content of individual amino acids (AAs) were found to be different when calculated by correction of heat combustion[5]. However, the protein conversion factor of 4 calories per gram was derived as an average for the energy yield of all amino acids[6]. This means that if a food contains a large amount of the amino acid phenylalanine, which yields 6.7 kcal/g (28 kJ/g)[5], a relatively high energy value compared to other AAs, then the overall energy value of the food may be higher than what is derived by calculation using the protein conversion factor. The table below shows the heat of combustion produced by each AA used as the energy conversion factor.

Figure 1: Heat of combustion of amino acids[5]

Amino acid Heat of combustion (kcal/g)
Alanine 4.341
Arginine 5.129
Asparagine 3.488
Aspartic acid 2.875
Cysteine 3.256
Cystine 3.015
Glutamic acid 3.646
Glutamine 4.207
Glycine 3.097
Histidine 4.851
Isoleucine 6.523
Leucine 6.524
Lysine 6.038
Methionine 4.456
Ornithine 5.493
Phenylalanine 6.723
Proline 5.681
Serine 3.308
Threonine 4.120
Tryptophan 6.588
Tyrosine 5.859
Valine 5.963

Carbohydrate

The assumptions based on carbohydrates are even more problematic. Firstly, the conversion factor does not distinguish between sugars, starch and dietary fiber. For example, monosaccharides have combustion heats of around 3.75 kcal/g (16 kJ/g), disaccharides 3.95 (17 kJ/g) and polysaccharides 4.15–4.20 kcal/g (17–18 kJ/g)[7]. There are also sugar alcohols to consider, organic compounds that are derived from sugars – also known as polyols – all with a varying energy conversion factor; for example, xylitol provides 2.4 kcal/g (10 kJ/g) whereas glycerol provides 4.3 kcal/g (18 kJ/g) and erythritol is 0 kcal/g[2]. However, 2.4 kcal/g (10 kJ/g) is a general rule of thumb for sugar alcohol conversion factors excluding erythritol[2].

By way of example, if a food was predominantly made up of monosaccharides, the energy conversion factor of 4 kcal/g may result in an overestimation of overall calories. Secondly, the Atwater method does not account for variants in fiber and resultant calories. Fiber can be partially degraded and absorbed in the large intestine and is assumed to be 70% fermentable[3], thereby providing some metabolisable energy. The extent of this degradation depends on the individual and the source of fiber. There is currently no clear-cut data to provide guidance on how to factor in the influence of fiber, although 2 kcal/g (8 kJ/g)[8] is typically used as the conversion factor for fiber within the food industry.

Fat

Fatty acids also differ in their heat of combustion; however, the difference is relatively small. Long-chain triglycerides have a value of 9 kcal/g whereas medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) have a value of 8.3 kcal/g (35 kJ/g)[9] and salatrims, which are used as reduced-calorie fat substitutes[9], have a value of 6 kcal/g (25 kJ/g)[3]. Albeit, a figure of 9 kcal/g is used as the standard within the food industry as a conversion factor for fat.

Energy conversion for carbohydrates in the US compared to the UK and EU

Generally, energy conversion for nutrients in the US is the same as it is for the UK and Europe. However, carbohydrates are calculated differently in the US from the method ‘carbohydrate by subtraction’[10]. The resulting ‘total carbohydrate’ value contains sugars, starch and fiber[10]. For nutrition labelling in the EU, carbohydrate is defined as ‘available carbohydrate’, which does not include the fiber component and is instead derived by calculating the sum of sugars and starches in the food[10].

Conclusion

For now, the use of energy conversion factors provides a method for estimating the available energy intake, although their limitations cannot be disregarded. Contrarily, it is worth considering the significance of these shortcomings and application to real life. Although there may be slight variations in the energy yield of a food by calculation versus measurement by heat of food combustion, the differences may be so small that the values become negligible.

References

  1. Merrill A, et al. Energy value of foods: basis and derivation. Washington DC: ARS United States Department of Agriculture; 1973.
  2. Food and Drink Europe. Guidance on the Provision of Food Information to Consumers Regulation (EU) No. 1169/2011. 2013.
  3. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Food energy - methods of analysis and conversion factors; 2003.
  4. Widdowson E. Note on the calculation of the energy value of foods and of diets. In: Paul AA, Southgate DA, eds. The composition of foods. 4 ed. New York. 1978.
  5. May ME, et al. Energy content of diets of variable amino acid composition. Am J Clin Nutr. 1990; 52(5):770-6.
  6. Sands R. Rapid method for calculating energy value of food components. Food Technology. 1974:29-40.
  7. Joint FAO/WHO/UNU. The Relationship Between Food Composition and Available Energy. Rome. 1981
  8. Ingle DL, et al. Dietary energy value of medium-chain triglycerides. Journal of Food Science. 1999; 64:960-3.
  9. Sørensen LB, et al. The effect of salatrim, a low-calorie modified triacylglycerol, on appetite and energy intake. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008; 87(5):1163-9.
  10. ESHA Research. How carbs are calculated in different countries. 2015 [Available from: https://www.esha.com/how-carbs-are-calculated-in-different-countries/].

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