Is kcal different from Cal?

Kcal and Cal are two units that are often used interchangeably to measure energy, but they are actually different units. Kcal stands for kilocalorie while Cal stands for calorie. A kilocalorie is equal to 1000 calories. This difference in units can lead to confusion when interpreting nutrition information or calculating energy requirements. In this article, we will explore the definitions of kcal and Cal, how they are used, and the key differences between these two units of energy measurement. Understanding the distinction between kilocalories and calories is important for accurately tracking nutritional intake and energy expenditure.

What is a Calorie?

A calorie (Cal) is defined as the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1°C. More specifically, 1 calorie is the amount of energy required to raise 1 gram of water from 14.5°C to 15.5°C under conditions of standard atmospheric pressure. The calorie used for nutrition labeling is sometimes referred to as a “big calorie” or “food calorie” to distinguish it from the “small calorie” used in physics and chemistry. In nutrition, calories always refer to the “big calorie.”

The calorie was originally defined based on the energy content of food. In the late 19th century, Wilbur Olin Atwater determined the caloric content of various foods by burning them. He showed that 1 gram of fat releases approximately 9 calories of energy when burned. Carbohydrates and proteins were found to release approximately 4 calories per gram. These values are still used today to calculate the energy content of foods.

While the calorie on nutrition labels refers to the “big calorie,” in physics and chemistry the calorie (cal) denotes the “small calorie.” One small calorie is defined as the amount of energy required to raise 1 gram of water by 1°C, which is 1/1000 of the nutritional Calorie. To avoid confusion, the small calorie is often referred to using the International System of Units (SI) unit of joules. One cal is equal to 4.184 joules.

What is a Kilocalorie?

The kilocalorie (kcal) is the most commonly used unit for referring to the calorie content of foods. 1 kilocalorie is equal to 1000 calories. Because the nutritional Calorie is 1000 times greater than the small cal, it is often referred to as a kilocalorie. However, the symbols are different—kcal versus Cal.

The kilocalorie is used to describe the caloric or energy content of foods to make the numbers easier to work with. Since a calorie is a very small amount of energy, using kilocalories allows us to refer to the energy content of foods in thousands of calories rather than in single calories. For example, a food that contains 450 calories per serving would be described as containing 0.45 kcal per serving.

Kilocalories are also the unit used in calculating daily energy requirements. The estimated average daily energy requirement ranges from 1500-3000 kcal per day for men and 1000-2400 kcal per day for women. Referring to daily calorie needs in thousands of calories makes these numbers easier to work with than using calories alone.

Key Differences Between kcal and Cal

While kcal and Cal are sometimes used interchangeably, there are some key differences between these two units of energy measurement:

  • A kcal represents 1000 calories (cal), whereas a Calorie represents 1 calorie.
  • The Calories (Cal) used for nutrition labels refer specifically to the “big calorie” or kilocalorie.
  • Kilocalories (kcal) are primarily used to quantify the energy content of foods. Calories (cal) are standard units of energy used in chemistry and physics.
  • On nutrition labels, energy content is expressed in Calories (Cal) or kilocalories (kcal), not small calories (cal).
  • In scientific writing, calories (cal) are often expressed as joules to avoid confusion with the nutritional Calorie.
  • The estimated daily energy requirements for humans range from 1000-3000 Calories (kcal), not calories (cal).

To summarize, the Calorie (Cal) used for nutrition purposes is actually equivalent to the kilocalorie (kcal). The important distinction is that nutritional Calories are 1000 times greater than the small calories used in chemistry and physics. Being aware of this difference allows for accurate interpretation of nutrition information and energy content.

Kilocalorie vs Calorie Examples

Let’s look at some examples that illustrate the difference between using kilocalories versus calories when discussing the energy content of food or daily energy requirements:

Food Energy Content

Food Energy Content (kcal) Energy Content (cal)
Apple 95 95,000
Baked Potato 161 161,000
Chicken Breast (cooked) 239 239,000

Looking at this table, we can see that reporting the calorie content in kilocalories (kcal) makes the values easy to work with. Using calories alone would require referencing an extremely large number for the energy content.

Daily Energy Requirements

The estimated average daily energy requirement for an adult male is 2500-3000 Calories (kcal):

  • Daily requirement in kcal: 2500-3000 kcal/day
  • Daily requirement in cal: 2,500,000-3,000,000 cal/day

For an adult female, the estimated daily energy requirement is 2000-2400 Calories (kcal):

  • Daily requirement in kcal: 2000-2400 kcal/day
  • Daily requirement in cal: 2,000,000-2,400,000 cal/day

Again, we can see that expressing the daily energy requirement in kilocalories makes the values more practical to use than calories.

These examples demonstrate why kilocalories are predominantly used over calories in nutrition—doing so allows us to work with more reasonable numbers when quantifying the energy content of foods and total daily energy needs.

When to Use kcal vs. Cal

So when should you use kcal versus Cal? Here are some quick guidelines:

  • Use kcal when quantifying the energy or caloric content of foods, such as on nutrition labels.
  • Use Cal when referring generally to nutritional energy content or requirements.
  • In scientific writing, use calories (cal) and convert to joules to avoid confusion with the food Calorie.
  • Do not use small calories (cal) when dealing with nutritional energy content—always use Calories (Cal) or kilocalories (kcal).

The key point to remember is that the Calorie referred to for nutritional purposes is the same as a kilocalorie. The main exception is in scientific documents where calories (cal) are converted to joules to distinguish them from the nutritional Calorie (kcal).

When looking at nutrition facts, food databases, or recommended daily intakes, these will nearly always be expressed in kilocalories or Calories—not small calories. So be aware that in nutrition contexts, kilocalories represent the standard way to quantify energy content.

Why the Difference Between kcal and Cal Matters

Understanding the difference between kcal and Cal is important for several reasons:

  • Accurate tracking of nutrient intake – Knowing that nutrition labels use kilocalories allows you to accurately track the number of calories consumed. Mixing up kcal and cal would throw off any tracking.
  • Meeting energy needs – Your daily caloric requirement is expressed in kilocalories, so distinguishing kcal from cal allows you to target the appropriate daily intake.
  • Weight management – When calculating energy balance for weight loss or gain, it’s essential to know your intake and expenditure in kilocalories, not calories.
  • Comparing foods – You can only accurately compare the energy content of different foods if their labels use the same unit (kilocalories).
  • Scientific writing – Proper terminology is required in academic writing, so scientists need to distinguish calories (cal) from Calories (kcal).
  • Avoiding confusion – Using the terms interchangeably can create confusion since kcal and cal do not represent the same amount of energy.

Distinguishing between the two units allows for clearer nutrition communication, accurate energy accounting, and more informed dietary choices. While technically the same thing, their different names and scale mean that interchanging kcal and Cal incorrectly can undermine the validity of any nutrition-related discussion.

Kilocalorie Conversion

To convert between kilocalories, calories, and joules:

  • 1 kilocalorie (kcal) = 1000 calories (cal)
  • 1 Calorie (Cal) = 1000 calories (cal)
  • 1 calorie (cal) = 4.184 joules (J)
  • 1 kilocalorie (kcal) = 4184 joules (J)

Some examples of unit conversions:

  • 200 Calories (Cal) = 200,000 calories (cal) = 836,800 joules (J)
  • 300 kilocalories (kcal) = 300,000 calories (cal) = 1,255,200 joules (J)
  • 80 calories (cal) = 334.72 joules (J)

Using these conversion factors allows you to move between kilocalories, calories, and joules as needed. Just be aware that in nutrition contexts, the standard is to use kilocalories or Calories rather than calories.


In summary, kcal and Cal refer to slightly different but related units of energy:

  • A kilocalorie (kcal) is 1000 calories (cal).
  • The Calorie (Cal) used for nutrition purposes is the same as a kilocalorie.
  • Nutrition labels and guidelines use kilocalories or Calories, not small calories.
  • Being aware of the difference allows for accurate tracking of nutrition data.
  • Kilocalories can be converted to calories or joules using simple conversion factors.

So while the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, it is important to recognize that kcal and Cal represent different scales of the same energy unit. Proper terminology usage helps avoid confusion or inaccuracies when quantifying energy content. By understanding that a Calorie is equivalent to 1000 calories and knowing when it is appropriate to use kcal vs. Cal, you can precisely discuss nutrition science and make informed dietary choices.

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