An interesting topic formed in the cycling vs car question about food calories.

There is a calorie - which is the energy used to heat 1 gram of water 1 degree celsius. And the dietary calorie that the general populace uses that is 1 kilocalorie but the kilo is omitted.

The same is with the word organic - every matter that has carbon chain in it is organic - this is the proper definition. So every food is organic by definition.

My opinion is that the answer should be accessible, so it should be formed as the way the person that asked expects it. With disclaimer why the question ask contains incorrect terminology, and how is the correct one.

Another hilarious example of using wrong terminology was a sign I saw last year in my country when there were protests against GMO - it read "We don't want DNA in our tomatoes".

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    Remember that the dietary Calorie should be capitalized when used. I didn't edit my comments yesterday when I should have to have fixed that. Unfortunately now I can't fix them.
    – Darwy
    Commented Aug 23, 2011 at 17:42
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    That's part of the problem. If the reader knows that there is even distinction between the two types he will be freely able to consume the content in the proper physics ones. Commented Aug 23, 2011 at 17:51
  • Instead of editing your comment, you can delete it, and write a new one. Commented Aug 23, 2011 at 19:40
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    Related: meta.skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/1001/…
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Aug 23, 2011 at 21:09

4 Answers 4


Using Calorie meaning kilocalorie is not wrong (dictionary definition of calorie), it is very confusing and annoying, but it is common usage.

"Organic" is a pretty fuzzy term when applied to food, but it has found its way into the dictionary

of, relating to, yielding, or involving the use of food produced with the use of feed or fertilizer of plant or animal origin without employment of chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics, or pesticides

When used in this context "organic" is the correct term. It still might not be exact enough in the context of the question, then we should ask for clarification in comments.

Your definitions of calorie and organic are far too strict, they are used differently in common usage and we should accept that. We should not get pedantic about definitions, as long as the meaning of the question is clear.

As Sklivvz already wrote, we should generally use SI derived units. They are unambigious, widely used and convenient. The claim in a question might be from a source using different units, in those cases I would suggest to edit the SI-derived units additionally into the question. Answers should generally use the SI units or optionally use metric and imperial units, if the question was posed in imperial units.

The DNA stuff is just silly and the fundamental misunderstanding should be corrected and any answer should make it abundantly clear that any tomato has DNA in it and that this is not in any way a bad thing. This is a completely different case from the other two examples.

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    See: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_energy
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Aug 23, 2011 at 22:46
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    Isn’t “organic” actually a pretty well-defined term when applied to food? After all, it’s strictly regulated by law. I agree that it doesn’t make sense and is a bullsh*t term. But unlike with “calories” there is no big risk of confusion, if used in the now “proper” sense. Commented Aug 27, 2011 at 8:57

We've already had this discussion, and smarter people than us had this discussion: international science shoud be done in metric units (e.g. MKS or cgs).

According to the American Central Intelligence Agency's Factbook, the International System of Units is the official system of measurement for all nations in the world except for Myanmar (Burma), Liberia and the United States.

The only exception I am aware of is the use of natural units in theoretical physics.

If an answer is in the wrong units, correct it and eventually down vote it if you found a particularly annoying case.

Specifically, there are large and small calories. When speaking about food, calorie, Calorie and kcal should all be intended to mean 4.2kJ.

See what I've done there? I've just used the standard metric system to clarify legacy crap which inevitably happens with old units. I suggest that we do the same.

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    It's a different discussion. You normally don't confuse miles with kilometers or gallons and liters. Using 1 cal to express 1kcal is much worse than using a mile, because people recognize, that you use a 'mile'. But nobody can recognize whether you mean a cal or a cal if you say a cal. Commented Aug 24, 2011 at 1:31
  • Ha, try Sweden or Norway, where 1 mile = 10,000 metres.
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Commented Aug 24, 2011 at 3:00
  • @user, calorie is not an SI unit, the correct one is J.
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Aug 24, 2011 at 6:23
  • @Sklivvz: Please where did I say, that calorie is a SI unit? I don't remember. Commented Aug 24, 2011 at 7:00
  • @Oddthinking: When did Sweden and Norway invent their mile? Where did it come from (name and size)? Commented Aug 24, 2011 at 7:06
  • @user: Has been defined as 10,000m since 1875/1889. Was 36,000 feet before then. Ref
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Commented Aug 24, 2011 at 7:17
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    @user: a mile is confusing because there's a nautical mile and an imperial mile. a gallon is confusing because there's a UK gallon and a US gallon... It's the same problem and it has the same solution: there is only one kilometre, there is only one litre and there is only one joule.
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Aug 24, 2011 at 9:29

The problem with this terminology – unlike Daniel’s example of the nonsense marketing term “organic” – is that it’s rife with misunderstanding. If we accept the usage of “cal” to stand for 4.2kJ, then the term “calorie” has two different meanings in two very closely related contexts (namely, both concerned with energy) – in fact, physically it’s the same usage.

This isn’t a big problem, but it is a problem: it causes accidents when someone carelessly tries to reconstruct an argument by doing the calculations, and using the wrong calorie. In fact, this is the cause for the misunderstanding that beer helps you slim: from memory, the logic was that cool beer has x calories but the body needs to spend more than x calories to heat the cool beer to body temperature.

The calculation was impeccable, the problem was that two different meanings of “calorie” were used. I’m not very tolerating of such easily avoidable misunderstandings.

I’m not suggesting that we banish every lax use of “calorie” by editing other users’ posts. But I am suggesting that we strive to use unambiguous terminology. Why use “calorie” when it’s so damn easy to do better?

  • I think it's a pretty serious problem as long as people on this site keep on getting hooked up on it and discussing pointlessly. And then mods have to mop up ;-) Let's decide how to handle this once and for all and move on :-)
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Aug 26, 2011 at 17:47

There is no sense in threating 1 cal as 1 kcal; you can not argue that way. Just use the right terminology, even if most users do it wrong.

I'm living in Europe, and here, the food industrie is forced to print the values on the food containers. They can't choose to print 0.7 cal to mean 700 cal. They have to use Joule and Calorie, J and cal, and k just means thousand. There is no ambiguity.
If the people don't know, that an average person needs 2 000 to 2 500 kcal per day, don't tell them that it is 2 000 cals. The next user will think you used the scientific term and translate that to 2cals /day - how should he know you didn't?

If the reader already knows the correct numbers, you needn't tell them in the first place.

Isn't there a law which forces the companies to print the values on the bags and bottles in US, Canada, Australia, Switzerland, Asia, Africa or where ever you live? What do they print? Or what is meant with general populace?

If the general populace is doing it wrong, it's wrong. Don't do it wrong - it's simple as that.

If people claim, that they like DNA-free tomatos, do you accept this? I don't have a reason to participate in stupidity. If you don't like DNA in tomatos, don't eat tomatos.

What is the problem with organic? I don't think it's used that way in germany. If you talk about anorganic food - it is salt, for example, isn't it?

But what do these examples show? That we shall accept the wrong terminology for calories, because we did accepted (I didn't) it when talking about DNA-tomatos? I can show you millions of examples, where we don't do it wrong. You can't say meter if you mean kilometer or gram if you mean kilogram and so on and nobody does so. Why should 2 examples, where you're doing it wrong, have more weight?

  • Mixing wrong and right measurements is confusing.
  • Excusing for using the right measurements is silly.
  • Using wrong numbers, while the right ones are printed on the products, is confusing.
  • It is shorter to just use kcal if you mean kcal, than to write cal, and writing a disclaimer, that you prefer to do it the wrong way.


Well, I have to admit, that there is, in fact, some usage of this very dumb idea. One of the dumbest ideas I ever heared of. Who had the idea to invent a another unit for energy, instead of calories and providing a transferrate of exactly 1000, but not using the already available 1kcal, but calling it Calories? It can't be distinguished from listening, and it can't be written at the beginning of the Sentence, without ambiguity. Who invented it, why, and who accepted it?

I inspected my kitchen, and found a bottle of spicy SRIRACHA Hot Chilie Sauce, containing 5 Calories* per tsp of 5g *)Percent Daily values are based on a 2000 calorie diet. Of course, you have to account for such mistakes, when translating between cultures - who the hell had such a dump idea? Why didn't they call it Zalories or colaries at least? What's wrong with kcal and kilo calories? Do these people measure the length of a spaghetti as one millimeter, when entering the kitchen? We don't measure wheat, meat and sugar in grams, because we are too lazy to use kilogram.

This is soo dumb! I like to shoot a diet-scientist right now! (Just assume that I mean a kilo scientists.)

  • "organic" would be roughly in german "aus biologischem Anbau", it is a term commonly used with food. The organic/anorganic meaning of course also exists, but I don't think the OP is talking about that.
    – Mad Scientist Mod
    Commented Aug 23, 2011 at 21:25

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