Coke Calorie Conundrum

Coke Can Nutrition Label

A few days ago we got an email from Bob, who was befuddled by Coke’s

Thirty-nine grams of sugar at 4 calories per gram yields 156 calories, right?  So how can there only be 140 calories in a 12 oz can of Coke?  Or, am I not seeing something?

Makes sense.

We wrote to Coke’s consumer affairs group, and this was their reply:

Thank you for contacting The Coca-Cola Company.  We appreciate this opportunity to assist you.

Under the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) passed by Congress in 1990, serving size is based on either a reference amount or a container size.

Products with less than five calories per serving are rounded to zero calories; products with 5-50 calories are rounded to the nearest 5-calorie increment; and products with over 50 calories are rounded to the nearest 10-calorie increment.

A 12-ounce serving of Coca-Cola classic has 39 grams of carbohydrate
(39 grams of carbohydrate)  x  (3.66 Calories) = (142.74 Calories)
FDA guidelines allow beverage companies to round calories  to the nearest 10-Calorie increment, so 142.72 Calories is rounded to 140 Calories

We hope this information is helpful.  Should you have additional questions or comments, please feel free to contact us again.

Industry and Consumer Affairs
The Coca-Cola Company

Get it? Carbs are not 4 calories per gram, but rather 3.66. But how can this be? We’ve been taught that fats are 9 calories to the gram, while carbs and protein are 4 to the gram. But the truth, as always, is more complicated. The 4-4-9 paradigm is a simplification that makes it easy to quickly assess and calculate calorie values.

Calories have been measured in the same way for 100 years using the Atwater method – basically burning the food in a special receptacle (calorimeter) and measuring the heat output. Energy is energy. Using this method, hundreds of basic foods were burned and their measurement taken. The values for carbs are on average 4 calories per gram. But for glucose, which is what sugar and high fructose corn syrup in soda break down to,  the value is 3.68. And so why wouldn’t Coke choose that as their base for calorie calculation.

But wait, calorie determination is even more complicated. The calorimeter is not not an exact approximation of human metabolism. Each one if us will be impacted slightly differently by foods we eat. Not everything we eat is digested (fiber in fruit) and that can also impact the calories actually absorbed by the body.

In summary, calorie information should be used as an approximation. If you are comparing 2 products, one with 160 calories and the other with 140 calories – opt for the product with the better ingredients.

  • JLF

    The easiest solution is to not drink the stuff.

  • James Cooper

    Very well explained.

  • Jason Wittman, MPS

    It has always seemed to me that focusing on calories has been a way to obfuscate the whole weight loss conversation. The way fats and carbs are used by the body are hugely different and to convert both of them into calories and use that as a guide as to how much of something is OK to ingest is ridiculous. You could eat an entire chicken or for that matter an entire steer and not gain an ounce although all the fat you had just eaten would be lots of calories, yet a case of cokes washing down many Starbucks’ muffins, way less calories, would put lots of fat on ones frame.

    Dr. Atkins was on track. Just concentrate on carb intake and that will serve real well when it comes to deciding what and how much to eat.

  • Richard Tilley

    Only the ignorant drink this stuff.
    It doesn’t matter what is in it.

  • Carol H.

    Yes… important to remember that most foods (50+ calories) have calorie data rounded to the nearest 10 calories. That means something with (and it’s not even accurate before rounding) 135 calories and something with 144 calories will both show as 140 calories. This is for good reason, due to the inherent imprecision of the whole thing. This is also why focusing on burning calories (exercise) and choosing them wisely (quality food with maximum nutrients per calorie, balanced with some fiber) is more important than simply counting calories. If you’ve got a sodium restriction, you’re in more trouble, because when salt is added to foods in processing/packaging plants it is NEVER going to be exactly as stated on the package — impossible for it to stick/distribute, especially on chips, in a consistent manner. This is why lots of salty snacks can seem (and are) much saltier than stated on the label. It is a common (and unspoken) manufacturing problem.