What’s Really Included in a Food’s Calorie Count (and What Isn’t)

What’s Really Included in a Food’s Calorie Count (and What Isn’t)
Photo: Eletha15, Shutterstock

Counting your calories with a tracking app seems pretty simple — unless you decide to get serious about it and measure your portion sizes. Then you’ll realise that an orange weighs less without the peel, that taking the skin off your baked chicken is saving you some calories, and that there’s an entry for bone-in chicken thighs but you’re not going to eat the bone. So how many calories do you actually end up eating?

These are good questions, and the United States Department of Agriculture (which does a lot of nutrient testing) has answers. When you look up a basic item like “apple” or “chicken breast” in a food tracking app, you’ll find entries from the USDA’s testing. (If you use MyFitnessPal, which in my opinion you shouldn’t, there’s usually a USDA entry among the green-flagged options.)

Are peels and bones included in the calorie information for generic foods?

Often there will be separate entries for food items with and without their skins, peels, and other commonly-discarded items. But if you only see a single entry, here’s your rule of thumb:

Portions are provided…for edible material without refuse (i.e., the edible portion of the food), such as an apple without the core or stem or a chicken leg without the bone.

So the nutritional information for oranges is for just the flesh, minus skin and peel. The peel is technically edible, but it’s considered refuse for this item. Should you want to eat the peel anyway — say you’re making candied orange slices — there is an entry for oranges, raw, with peel and a separate entry for just orange peels.

You can sometimes get more information by looking up your chosen food in the USDA’s FoodDataCentral and clicking on the “measures” or “ingredients” for a food. For example, chicken backs include meat and skin, but not the bones, and they are assumed to be salted. Bananas are peeled.

To get more details on what’s considered the “refuse” or “inedible portion” of a food, you’ll have to dig deeper into the bowels of obscure government websites. I don’t expect you to do this every time you eat a chicken thigh, but here are some examples of what I found in the FOOD_DES file for the Standard Reference (Legacy) database (don’t ask):

  • Grapefruit does not include the “peel, seeds, core, and membrane.”
  • A KFC drumstick does not include “cartilage and bone” (there are separate entries for whether you’re eating it whole or have peeled off the skin and breading).
  • A porterhouse steak does not include “bone and connective tissue,” but it does include the layer of fat around the outside. There are separate entries for porterhouse steaks with the fat trimmed to 1/8″ or removed entirely.
  • A pot roast does not include “connective tissue” or “seam fat.”

So there’s your answer for generic foods. If you want to weigh your banana, do so without the peel.

What’s included in the nutrition facts label for packaged foods?

On the other hand, if you’re looking at a packaged food item, you may have the opposite question: Does the calorie label include everything you’ll be eating, or only what’s in the package? For example, if you buy a seasoned rice mixture, the instructions may recommend adding butter while you’re cooking it.

The Food and Drug Administration requires that packaged foods include nutrition information for whatever is in the package — so, the dry rice mix by itself. They may also optionally include a second column for the food “as prepared.” You’ll most often see this for baking mixes (one column for the mix, one for a slice of cake) and for cereals (the cereal by itself, and the cereal as served with a certain amount and type of milk).

   

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