Caloric Content of Two Foods


Calorie Lab Setup

Calorie Lab Setup

Millions of people have been conditioned to count calories in their food and have learned (surprise!) that fatty foods are fattening. Most, however, have little idea what a calorie actually is. It is a unit of energy, just like the joule, the kilowatt-hour, or the foot-pound. The "Calorie" of diet fame is simply the amount of heat energy it would take to raise one kilogram of water one degree Celsius in temperature. In this investigation we will attempt to measure the amount of energy (Calories) released from burning two food items with differing proportions of fats and carbohydrates. Watch this video for an overview.



  1. Weigh your two food items on an electronic balance sensitive to 0.01 grams.
  2. Weigh the empty can, then fill it about 1/4 to 1/3 full with water, and weigh it again.
  3. Record the initial temperature of the water in the can.
  4. Set the can on the stand with the thermometer in it (careful not to knock it over; it may be a bit wobbly), and place a piece of foil or a small aluminum tray under the stand to catch any falling soot.
  5. Carefully impale the food item on the probe, ignite it with the lighter, and then hold it directly under the can until it burns itself out and won't re-light. (Hint: You may need to rotate the food item to keep it lit, and it will burn more cleanly if the tip of the flame is just below the can, but the food must burn on its can't keep the lighter lit or you will be measuring the calories of the gas in the lighter.)
  6. Record the highest temperature reached by the water. Repeat the procedure with the second food item. You can re-use the water in the can, but need to record the new starting and ending temperatures.
  7. When finished, clean up and analyze your data.

Results (Part A): Fill in the following table while doing the lab. If you like, you can do your calculations using this pre-built Excel spreadsheet.

Mass of the empty can (g)

Mass of water + can (g)

Mass of just the water (g)
Hint: water = (water+can) - empty can)

Mass of water in the can (kg) Convert from grams
Hint: there are 1000g in a kilogram

Important: Each of the following measurements needs to be taken twice; once for each food type.


Mass of food item (g)


Initial temp of water (℃)


Highest temp of water (℃)


Temperature change (℃)



  1. Calculate the number of calories in your food using the equation below. Don't let the units confuse you. They will cancel out. Simplified, it's just Calories = water mass * temp change.

  2. Q = m * c * ΔT

    energy absorbed by water = mass of water * specific heat of water * temperature change

    Calories = (Mass of water in kg) * [(1 Calorie) / (1 kg)(1℃)] * (temp change in ℃)

  3. Divide total calories of each food item by its mass to obtain Calories per gram.

Results (Part B):


Calories absorbed by water (cal):

Calories per gram of food (cal/g):


  1. What does burning the foods do to them? How does this relate to respiration and digestion?
  2. What was the purpose of the water in the can? Why didn't it matter exactly how much water was in the can?
  3. Why did we compute calories per gram instead of just calories?
  4. Why will our technique almost certainly underestimate the actual number of calories? Refer here for true values.
  5. Though our method is crude, why is there still validity in the comparison across the two foods?
  6. Which food had more calories per gram? How should a food rich in fats compare to a food rich in carbohydrates?
  7. How would your results differ if you kept the food under the lighter flame throughout?
  8. If the food was not completely burned, how would this affect your results?
  9. What is the practical value of this technique (which is known as calorimetry)?
  10. Why do animals consume food? Why do animals need oxygen?

Established values for calories per gram of pure food types:

Fat: 1 gram = 9 calories
Protein: 1 gram = 4 calories
Carbohydrates: 1 gram = 4 calories
Alcohol: 1 gram = 7 calories