Jim Painter, an assistant professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois, explains.
In order to answer this question, it helps to define a calorie. A calorie is a unit that is used to measure energy. The Calorie you see on a food package is actually a kilocalorie, or 1,000 calories. A Calorie (kcal) is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water 1 degree Celsius. Sometimes the energy content of food is expressed in kilojoules (kj), a metric unit. One kcal equals 4.184 kj. So the Calorie on a food package is 1,000 times larger than the calorie used in chemistry and physics.
The original method used to determine the number of kcals in a given food directly measured the energy it produced.The food was placed in a sealed container surrounded by water--an apparatus known as a bomb calorimeter. The food was completely burned and the resulting rise in water temperature was measured. This method is not frequently used today.
The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 (NLEA) currently dictates what information is presented on food labels. The NLEA requires that the Calorie level placed on a packaged food be calculated from food components. According to the National Data Lab (NDL), most of the calorie values in the USDA and industry food tables are based on an indirect calorie estimation made using the so-called Atwater system. In this system, calories are not determined directly by burning the foods. Instead, the total caloric value is calculated by adding up the calories provided by the energy-containing nutrients: protein, carbohydrate, fat and alcohol. Because carbohydrates contain some fiber that is not digested and utilized by the body, the fiber component is usually subtracted from the total carbohydrate before calculating the calories.
The Atwater system uses the average values of 4 Kcal/g for protein, 4 Kcal/g for carbohydrate, and 9 Kcal/g for fat. Alcohol is calculated at 7 Kcal/g. (These numbers were originally determined by burning and then averaging.) Thus the label on an energy bar that contains 10 g of protein, 20 g of carbohydrate and 9 g of fat would read 201 kcals or Calories. A complete discussion of this subject and the calories contained in more than 6,000 foods may be found on the National Data Lab web site at http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/. At this site you can also download the food database to a handheld computer. Another online tool that allows the user to total the calorie content of several foods is the Nutrition Analysis Tool at http://www.nat.uiuc.edu.
Answer originally posted on May 19, 2003.