Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Calorie or ... Calorie?

When we first arrived in Qatar, the abundance of food products from all over the world were both tantalizing and overwhelming. In the beginning we experimented quite a bit, and often indulged in purchasing an assortment of new, fascinating and often delectable items. Some things we liked and have since remained loyal to, some we did not. In the fervor of the moment we often overlooked the nutritional value of many of the products we purchased.

Now that the honeymoon period is over, I carefully watch what we eat and try to obtain healthier alternatives. I also regularly read the food nutrition and ingredient labels. I hardly see ingredients like ‘partially hydrogenated vegetable oil’ (also known as the much hyped ‘trans fat’) and various forms of ‘high-fructose corn syrup’ in much of the products here, except in the American imports. However, I often do see ‘palm oil’ which is high in saturated fats and equally unhealthy as trans fats, along with the highly undesirable ’monosodium glutamate (MSG)’ in many products, mainly in Asian imports. Even though junk food (snacks such as chips, confectionary items etc) from all over the globe is widely available in great profusion; my children are thankfully not susceptible to much of it. We generally stick to the things we enjoy, both our new finds and old favorites from back home. The fact we are developing brand loyalty is an indication that we have planted our roots in our adopted home.

Activia I have a tremendous love for dairy products; therefore it is not unexpected that one of the items I was drawn to and now greatly enjoy is laban. It is best described as a subtler, creamier and less tart version of buttermilk. It comes unsalted so one can flavor it according to taste, though most drink it plain. Activia, a product of Dannon, is a brand of laban that I usually buy, since it comes fortified with probiotic cultures, which are beneficial to the digestive system. I usually drink it lightly salted with a bit of ground roasted cumin sprinkled on top. It somewhat reminds me of the popular Iranian drink called dugh (minus the club soda), something I used to drink once as a poor college student (they are great with falafels!).

Upon reading Activia’s nutrition label, I found that 100 ml (3.38 US fluid ounces) of the product has 62 kcal’s. Since I am not much familiar with the metric unit, I asked K & H to do some research at tell me how many calories it has. After a few minutes they came up with the number - 62,000 calories. So an 8 oz. glass has 146,3600 calories, enough calories to sustain an average person on a 2000 calorie a day diet for over 741 days!

This number seemed outlandish, to say the least. So I decided to do some research of my own and here is the outcome:

There are 2 types of calories, the first is called the gram calorie (aka small calorie) which is used in scientific context and is often written as cal. It approximates the energy needed to increase the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 °C. The second kind of calorie (aka large calorie) is called the nutritional calorie, the term North Americans are more familiar with. The term kcal is the same as what we commonly call ‘calorie’. So, both colloquially speaking and in nutrition and food labeling, the term "calorie" almost always refers to the kilogram calorie. Hence, 1 nutrition calorie = 1 kcal = 1000 gram calories.

So, K & H were both right yet (thankfully) wrong. I can also discuss how all this relates to kjoules, but I think I have now confused everyone adequately, including myself.

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