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Does the history of food energy units suggest a solution to "Calorie confusion"?

James L Hargrove

Author Affiliations

Department of Foods and Nutrition, University of Georgia, Athens, GA, 30602-0001, USA

Nutrition Journal 2007, 6:44  doi:10.1186/1475-2891-6-44

Published: 17 December 2007


The Calorie (kcal) of present U.S. food labels is similar to the original French definition of 1825. The original published source (now available on the internet) defined the Calorie as the quantity of heat needed to raise the temperature of 1 kg of water from 0 to 1°C. The Calorie originated in studies concerning fuel efficiency for the steam engine and had entered dictionaries by 1840. It was the only energy unit in English dictionaries available to W.O. Atwater in 1887 for his popular articles on food and tables of food composition. Therefore, the Calorie became the preferred unit of potential energy in nutrition science and dietetics, but was displaced when the joule, g-calorie and kcal were introduced. This article will explain the context in which Nicolas Clément-Desormes defined the original Calorie and the depth of his collaboration with Sadi Carnot. It will review the history of other energy units and show how the original Calorie was usurped during the period of international standardization. As a result, no form of the Calorie is recognized as an SI unit. It is untenable to continue to use the same word for different thermal units (g-calorie and kg-calorie) and to use different words for the same unit (Calorie and kcal). The only valid use of the Calorie is in common speech and public nutrition education. To avoid ongoing confusion, scientists should complete the transition to the joule and cease using kcal in any context.