Have you ever been at a supermarket aisle, picked up two different brands of one thing (say a box of cereal) tried to compare the calories per serving only to find that one was in calories and the other one was in kilocalories and just stood there baffled not understanding what the difference was? Or maybe you have moved countries and suddenly realized that the nutritional labels in your new country look nothing like the ones back home. If this sounds like something that has happened to you before, then you will be glad to know that you are not alone. Not many people are often able to differentiate between kilocalories vs. calories.
In this article we are going to finally put to bed the kcal vs cal debate by letting you know what they are, how they are counted, why different countries have different names on the nutritional labels and how to easily navigate this seemingly confusing situation.
What Is A Calorie?
Thanks to the world becoming a little more health conscious in recent years, today, almost all products sold at supermarkets, in grocery stores, and even at your local café have a nutritional label showing how many calories you will be consuming per serving or per a certain weight. But what exactly is a calorie?
Calories in food or in beverages are basically a unit or measure of energy not a measure of weight or nutrient density (4). They can refer to two things:
- How much food energy we get from drinks and food
- The amount of energy you burn while exercising or through your Basal Metabolic Rate (while at rest)
While they provide us with essential energy to live our day to day lives, it is important to take note of how many calories in and calories out you consume and expend each day. Failure to do this could lead you to consuming too much food energy which often leads to weight gain, something that many people do not want.
Thankfully, this can be done through reputable calorie counter apps such as the BetterMe Calorie Counter. Such apps help you be aware about how much food energy intake you consume per day and if you log in your workouts, they also help you see how much energy you have spent in a day which helps in helping you stay in shape by eating well.
Kilocalories Vs. Calories: What Is The Difference?
Calories come in two different sizes; small that is often abbreviated by a lowercase ‘c’ and large that is shown in uppercase or capital ‘C’. A small calorie ‘c’ refers to how much energy is needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius. On the other hand, a large Calorie is the estimated amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1 kg of water by 1 degree Celsius.
Basically in the same way that 1 kilogram equals to 1000 grams is how 1 large Calorie equals to 1000 small calories. In line with this if you are wondering what is a kcal or what does kcal mean, it is basically a kilocalorie (the k stands for kilo) which as we have seen above refers to a large Calorie or 1000 small calories.
When referring to the energy in food or the energy our bodies burn to perform exercise and basic functions, you will see the term “calorie” used with or without a capital “C.” The units described are always kilocalories, or large Calories. So when you read a food label or talk about how many calories you need in a day, you are dealing in kilocalories, even if they are referred to as “calories” without the capital “C.”
Read More: Calorie Dense Foods To Be On The Lookout For
What Are Kilojoules?
While cals and kcal are the most common food energy units used by different countries and companies on their food nutritional labels, some countries also use kilojoules. Some countries known for using kilojoules (or kJ for short) are those in the European Union, New Zealand and Australia.
So How Do Kilocalories Vs. Calories Vs. Kilojoules Compare?
So far we already know that kilocalories and calories are effectively one and the same. However, kilojoules will need some conversion because one kilocal (cal) is equal to 4.18 kJ or 4.2 kJ if you choose to round it off (1).
- 1 cal/kcal = 4.18 kJ
- 1 kJ = 0.239 kJ
If 1 cal equals 4.18 kJ then 10 cals would equal to (10*4.18kJ) = 41.8 kJ.
On the other hand if a package says kJ to convert it to kcal you you would have to
100 kilojoules * (1 cal/4.18kJ) = 23.9 cal
How To Convert Cals To Joules Kcal To Calories?
To recap what we already know:
- You do not need to convert kcal to cals or vice versa because they are all the same unit.
- To convert one cal/kilocal to kilojoules you will have to multiply the calorie in question by 4.18kJ.
- To convert a kJ to kcals you will have to divide it by 4.18.
However, in the same way that we have one large C that is equal to 1000 small ‘c’s is the same thing as with kilojoules and joules. That is 1 kilojoule equals 1000 joules. In this sense if the nutritional label spells is written in joules and you would like to learn its caloric value, you would first have to convert joules into kilojoules and then take the kilojoules and further convert them into kilocalories/cals
A quick example is as follows for 2000 joules
2000 joules * (1kJ/1000) joules = 2kJ
2kJ * (1 kcal/4.18) kilojoules = 0.478 cals
Thankfully, joules are rarely used to show energy units in food and/or beverages and so you have no need to worry about this whole process.
Kilocalories Vs. Calories: How Do I Convert One To The Other?
As previously mentioned above, one kcal equals one large cal which means that a kilocalorie and a calorie are one and the same thing, and so you do not need to convert one into the other. If you pick up two cans of chickpeas and one says 364 cals and the other 364 kcals, both containers will offer you the same amount of food energy. None is bigger than the other.
One fortunate thing to remember is that while the term small calorie exists, it is only ever used in chemistry and physics research labs. Outside of these controlled environments this term is of no use and so you will never need to worry about converting anything from a small calorie to a large one and vice versa.
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How Do You Determine How Many Calories Are In A Beverage Or Food?
When you buy prepackaged foods or meals, it is quite easy to determine how much kcals are in a serving or certain weight of it as they are often shown on the nutritional label on the packaging. But, have you ever wondered how these companies can tell how many calories in beverage, food, or snack?
According to Livescience.com, it all goes back to how much energy is used to raise the temperature into 1 degree Celsius. The first thing to remember is that all the calories in our food comes from the 3 macronutrients; namely carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. While you can easily find out how much food energy is in a small meal through a calorie counter app, companies have to go through a more complex process to come up with the numbers on their nutritional label (2).
They do this by using a bomb calorimeter – a type of constant-volume calorimeter used in measuring the heat of combustion of a particular reaction. In simple terms, scientists will place the food in question in a sealed container surrounded by water and heat it until it is completely burned off. They will then record the rise in the water temperature to determine the number of calories in the product.
Counting Calories With The Help Of A Food Energy Counting App
You however, do not need such a device in your home to determine the amount of food energy in your meal or snack. If you do not have a food energy counting app, you can do it by hand using the 4-9-4 method to count your macronutrients. This ratio is as follows:
- Carbs = 4 calories per gram
- Protein = 4 calories per gram
- Fats = 9 calories per gram
For example: If your food in question has 8 grams of carbs, 15 grams of fat and 7 grams of protein, to determine the caloric value of the food in question you will do as follows:
- 8 g of carbs * 4 cals per gram = 32
- 7 g of protein * 4 cals per gram = 28
- 15 g of protein * 9 cals per gram = 135
The total caloric value of your food is (32 + 28 + 135) = 195 cals/kcal.
What Does Kcal Mean In Relation To Calories?
Kcal or kilocalorie is just another name for calories, different countries just use them interchangeably or prefer one over the other. You can think of it in terms of miles and kilometers or pounds and kilograms. Americans prefer using miles and pounds while the rest of the world uses kilograms and kilometers.
The only difference is that while some conversion is needed to turn pounds into kg and miles into kilometers, calories and kilocalories are one and the same. No conversion needed.
Why Do I Need To Understand The Difference And Similarities Between All These?
For the ordinary person, understanding all the above mentioned terminologies as well as their differences and similarities can be a headache. However, if you are looking to lose weight, maintain it, or generally live a healthier life then understanding these terms is crucial as it goes a long way in keeping you in shape.
When you are able to better read nutritional labels, understand them and log in your meals, you are able to understand the relationship between food, energy balance, and weight.
- A positive energy balance occurs when your food energy input is higher than your energy output and it leads to weight gain. I.e., if you eat more than your body needs and do not burn off the excess it will lead to weight gain.
- Negative energy balance is better for weight loss. Consuming less food energy than your body needs or even burning more energy than you consume via exercise leads to an imbalance that forces your body to burn stored fat to give you energy to function which leads to weight loss.
- Balanced energy means that your energy output and input are the same. Lack of a positive or negative energy output is best for people looking to maintain their current weight.
Some Crucial Points To Remember
Remember that while energy balance is essential to your weight, steady food intake is not always guaranteed. Issues such as stress, sadness and hormones can make us eat too much which can lead to a positive energy balance. On some days illness, a busy schedule or lack of appetite can cause us to eat too little and thus a negative energy balance. Do not let this stress you out but instead make sure to go back to your recommended energy balance to help you reach your weight goals.
Even if you are not concerned about your weight, reading and understanding nutritional labels makes you aware of what you are putting in your body. It can go a long way in helping you limit excess sugar and salt in your diet, as well as helping you stay away from overly processed foods and foods that are high in trans fats.
Such simple factors are what help to reduce your risk of chronic illnesses such as heart disease and stroke, diabetes, kidney disease, osteoporosis, as well as different types of cancer.
The Bottom Line
If you have been beating yourself up trying to figure out the major differences between kilocalories vs calories or kcal vs cal as you log in your food to your food journal or app, relax and remember that they are all the same. You do not need to convert one into the other. The question of conversion only arises if the nutritional label in question comes in kilojoules or joules.
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This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any medical conditions. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Energy in food (kilojoules and calories) (n.d., betterhealth.vic.gov.au)
- How Are Calorie Counts Calculated? (2018, livescience.com)
- Kcal vs. Calories: What’s the Diff? (2020, greatist.com)
- What Is a Calorie? (2021, verywellfit.com)
- What’s the Difference Between Kcal and Calories? (2021, healthline.com)