The Easy Solution to the "Brownie Calorie" Problem

(Oops…corrected 7/12)

Back at Christmastime, our team spent the better part of a lunch-hour debating whether brownies had more or less calories before or after they were baked…is brownie batter better or worse for you?  Well, today, with the help of Bhanu, our teammate working hard on keeping the MSDN Forums a great place to get answers every day, I came up with an answer without debating endothermic/exothermic reactions and plowing into biochemistry.

Let’s just count the calories.  A Betty Crocker brownie-mix box has two sets of nutrition facts on it–stats for just the powder inside of the box, and for the brownies after they are baked.  That’s all we need!  It turns out that a box of brownies, after baked, has 3,200 calories.  How much do the ingredients have?

Well, first, there’s the brownie mix itself.  It has 120 calories per serving, and there are 20 servings in the brownie box.  120 x 20 = 2,400 calories.  Now, Betty Crocker asks you to add three ingredients to your mix:  water, 2 eggs, and a 1/3 cup of vegetable oil.

Water = 0 calories

2 Eggs = 70 calories apiece x 2 = 140 calories

1/3 Cup Vegetable Oil = 5 1/3 tablespoons of vegetable oil = 16/3 tablespoons * 120 calories/tablespoon = 640 calories

Grand Total = 3,180 calories

This is 20 calories less than the (delete: brownie batter)…err, I mean baked brownies.  Yes, it matters what kind of vegetable oil you have, and we have to trust that Betty Crocker actually measured the calories in a brownie after it was cooked, but based on these calculations, there’s 20 calories (delete: less) MORE in a baked box of brownies than in the batter.  Given that a pound of fat is equal to 3,500 calories, if you ate 175 boxes of uncooked brownies, you’d save yourself an entire pound of body fat than if you ate the cooked brownies–a great tip if you’re trying to lose weight!

Comments (12)

  1. Lauren Smith says:

    Who eats brownie batter?  And if you count the loss of consumed calories from your bout of salmonella poisoning, how does that change your calculations?

  2. Martin says:

    My guess is rather that those 20 cals of diff you get is due to rounding. 3,200 calories seems nicely rounded.

    But if I had to guess, I’d say that it is likely that the finished, baked brownies have a higher energy content *per pound* than the brownie batter. This would be due to the weight loss caused by things like water evaporating in the heat, making the brownies "concentrated batter". (I’m also guessing that more water than oil will evaporate.)

    But if one where to eat the entire batch of baked brownies, compared to eating all the batter, I’d assume you would consume the same amount of fat, because the

    fat will likely not evaporate in any significant amounts. I’m ignoring the fact that you might grease your WinForm liberally, in case some of that fat will get absorbed by the finished brownies.

    I do have some insight into how the numbers on the back of the box gets created, because I recently did a project for a food company to replace their ageing food nutrition calculation system. So "my" system is currently responsible for calculating the nutrition facts on the back of the box for products from this particular company.

    Before this, I thought there was some "scientific" basis for the numbers, and how they where calculated. But after working with the customer, I understood that those numbers are more like a fairly good guess, and are also frequently heavily rounded and averaged, and even manually adjusted to be "on the safe side" to protect from accusations of false marketing (or, for the less ethically

    inclined, "lying" for marketing reasons to make the product more attractive).

    First of all. The nutritional values of most natural ingredients vary due to natural variations in the conditions in which they where grown.

    Take a jar of carrot purée one might serve to a baby. The label states some Vitamin C content. Is it likely that this number is exactly right?

    Here are some factors that might suggest that the value is fairly approximative:

    One can easily imagine that for example the nutritional content (such as Vitamin C) of carrots might differs substantially, even on a single field, depending on season, soil variations, location, if parts of the field is more inclined

    towards the sun, or a passing rabbit made a "deposit" of minerals and such near the growing plant.

    After the harvest, the nutritional values of the carrot item are further affected by storage conditions, such as time, light exposure and temperatures. When processing/cooking the carrot, factors such as cooking time, temperature, introduction of cooking-aids such as oils or salt further affect the nutritional value.

    And after being packaged, and delivered to the store, the food item might still be affected by storage conditions, including temperatures, storage time, acidity in the jar and light exposure.

    And, if the item is not ready to eat, but you have to add some ingredients yourself, obviously this might affects the nutritional value in ways you cannot really predict exactly (are those eggs for your brownies larger than average, and was the hen well nourished or not?). And if you have to heat the item, your microwave oven might vary its effect, or its timer might be inaccurate, or you make mistakes in the process (too hot, too long).

    Also the actual value printed on the box is affected by national regulations, stating what items you must declare, and which you can exclude, how you are allowed to round the figures, and what multiplication factors you are allowed to use when calculating f.ex. energy from the (calculated) contents of fat, proteins and carbohydrates.

    And, the company will want to be able to guarantee that the Vitamin-C content of the carrot purée is *at least* the amount specified, for its entire shelf-life. This means that if you serve your baby a newly produced jar (that might have a "best-before" date due in two years) you are likely to have a much higher actual content of Vitamin C than specified on the jar, and than if eaten in two years


    Naturally, all these things would be extremely complex to try to model or simulate in an application. Therefore I suspect that most cases the nutritional values for each ingredient is based on information in FDA (or equivalent)

    databases (=some "average" carrot), or in rarer cases on a (expensive) nutritional analysis by some lab, which also happens to be fairly approximative. Energy content of a carrot might for example be estimated by actually burning up a batch of carrot, and measure the temperature changes, and what gases where produced, and such things, and from there you might estimate the energy content, and amount of fat and so on.

    The story for vitamins happens to be more complex than for simpler, more inert substances, such as iron, but in general, one should not believe the nutritional values on

    the box to be any kind of precise and exact values. A good guess at best.

    Or, perhaps I should go into more detail? 🙂