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If Almonds Bring You Joy, Enjoy More For Fewer Calories

Scientists are starting to discover that the standard way of measuring calories, established more than 100 years ago, may not be terribly accurate when it comes to higher fat, high-fiber foods like nuts. But when it comes to almonds, the count may be off by a whole lot.

Food scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently published a new study that finds almonds have about 20 percent fewer calories than previously documented.

That's off by a lot more than an earlier British study showing pistachios have about 5 percent fewer calories than we thought, says USDA researcher David Baer, who worked on both studies.

"We were surprised," he says.

Baer and his colleagues compared the feces (poop, if you prefer) of people eating a controlled diet with almonds to ones who were eating a diet without any nuts. What they found was that "when people are consuming nuts, the amount of fat in the feces goes up," Bear says. "And that suggests that we're not absorbing all the fat or calories that's in the nut."

In essence, the fat in the feces shows there's a disconnect between the gross energy found in an almond and the energy our bodies actually absorb.

So what does this mean for the almond lovers among us? It's not a license to overindulge. But perhaps this energy dense, satiating snack will be more appealing to people scared off by the calorie count.

And, here's another tip. How you eat a nut, it seems, can make a difference. One important factor is chewing.

Baer explains that lots of the the nutrients are trapped inside the plant's cell walls. "So by chewing you can fracture the cell wall and get access to the fat that's stored inside the cell."

Needless to say, the Almond Board of California is pretty excited about the calorie study. It has not directly petitioned the federal government to adjust the official USDA calorie database, but the group is talking informally with federal officials, Almond Board's Chief Scientific Officer Karen Lapsley tells The Salt.

"If we can improve the information that's on a food label, I think everybody is better off," Lapsley says.

So, is it just almonds that may need a new calorie count? Or are all nuts up for a calorie review? Stay tuned to this space. Next month I'll be taking a trip to David Baer's lab, where we will burn some nuts — and maybe some chocolate — in his Bomb Calorimeter to learn more.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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