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Good Question: How Do They Count Calories In Food?

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(credit: CBS) Kim Johnson
Kim Johnson joined the WCCO-TV team in May 2014. You can find h...
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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – The list is out for popular restaurant dishes with the worst calorie counts. The Center for Science in the Public Interest reviewed menus at chains across the country.

Red Robin’s A1 Peppercorn Burger with bottomless fries and milkshake is the worst offender with 3,540 calories.

That got us wondering: How do they count calories in food?

Katie Vigessa, a dietitian with Nutritional Weight and Wellness, says counting calories comes down to a science.

“In a lab, the calorie is kind of the amount of energy that it takes to heat up one kilogram of water one degree Celsius,” Vigessa said.

Calories measure the energy in our food. Scientists use a standard reference table for common ingredients. For example, four calories per gram of protein, four for carbs or nine for fats.

“Calorie counts are a standard, and they really are a perfect measurement coming from a lab,” Vigessa said.

While the measurement from the lab may be perfect, Vigessa said what a chef does in a kitchen may not be.

“Serving sizes can vary, so sometimes what the standard is for the restaurant you might get a different portion,” she said.

So, the counts are a good start to avoiding meals with hidden monster calories, but Vigesah said the surest way to measure a good diet, may be to not measure at all.

“The quality of the ingredients is really what matters,” she said. “Watch out for Trans-fats and watch out for hydrogenated oils.”

If you want to avoid ordering a 2,500 calorie entree, help is on the way. Under the Affordable Care Act, some chains will have to disclose calorie counts on menus. The labeling regulations are still being finalized by the FDA.

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