Confusion with Calories and kilojoules

NSW fast food energy education campaign addresses poor understanding of kilojoules.
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01.Poor understanding of kilojoules


The New South Wales Government has launched a campaign to help consumers make the most of mandatory kilojoule labelling on fast food menu boards. 

But while kilojoule labelling is good news for consumers, it raises important questions. Thirty five years after Australia moved from "Calories" to "kilojoules", are consumers still more comfortable with Calories? 

And if not, should we abandon the metric measurement and go back to Calories?

Mandatory menu board labelling

Consumers in New South Wales can now access kilojoule (kJ) information for standard items at fast food outlets thanks to kilojoule labelling laws. 

The commencement of penalty provisions in February 2012 means that all chain food outlets with 20 or more locations in NSW, or 50 or more nationally, must provide kilojoule information on menu boards. 

The kilojoule content is based on the whole food item – for example, a burger, a pizza or a cake – and must be shown for all ready to eat foods sold in standardised sizes. This means that a consumer can compare a fast food outlet’s fried chicken burger with its grilled chicken wrap, or a pan pizza with a thin based pizza, and choose the lower kilojoule option if they want to. 

Consumers outside NSW also benefit, with some fast food chains choosing to roll out kilojoule labelling nationally and other governments following NSW’s lead. South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and Queensland are set to introduce mandatory kilojoule labelling and there are efforts to ensure consistency in approaches. 

Kilojoule confusion 

A potential obstacle to the effectiveness of kilojoule labelling exists, however, as it seems many consumers have limited understanding of energy in food and how it is measured. 

Although Australia officially switched to the metric kilojoules over thirty five years ago, it is still common for people to talk in Calories rather than kilojoules. 

This is not surprising given that Australian media regularly report on Calories, whether it’s cutting or counting them, instead of kilojoules. 

It’s not like kilojoules and Calories are interchangeable, either. There are 4.2 kilojoules in a Calorie, and 0.2 Calories in a kilojoule. The consumer confusion is understandable when we are used to hearing about Calories in foods and then get to the supermarket – or fast food outlet now – and see kilojoules. 

Given this confusion years ago, are we better off giving up and going back to the Calorie? 

For more news, see our Consumer news section.

Consumer campaign 

The good news for confused consumers is that the NSW Food Authority has launched an education campaign centred on the website, referring to the 8700 kilojoules the average person consumes each day. 

The campaign encourages the consumer to ‘find your ideal figure’ – that is, work out their individual kilojoule intake. Visitors to the site can enter their gender, weight, age, activity and whether they want to maintain or lose weight to determine their ideal figure. The website also puts this figure into perspective with information about what kilojoules are and examples of energy needs. 

The website has a database of popular foods which visitors can search to find the kilojoule content of different offerings, along with their exercise equivalents and percentages of the average kilojoule intake.  This information will enable consumers compare foods and help them make healthier choices. 

Continuing with kilojoules

While it might be tempting to revert to Calories, ditching the metric system would be a big step. Instead, CHOICE believes that consumer education is needed to improve kilojoule understanding and addressing consumer awareness of energy needs in general. 

Beyond the kilojoule/Calorie confusion, there are mixed messages from food marketers with some products claiming to be "high in energy" while others proudly claim to be "low kilojoule". This seems to suggest that energy is believed to be good, while kilojoules (and Calories) are seen as bad.  

The NSW Food Authority’s campaign is a great resource for consumers around Australia to learn about kilojoules using the information and tools on the website. CHOICE wants governments around Australia follow NSW’s lead, not only by introducing fast food kilojoule labelling but investing in improved awareness of kilojoules and energy. 

CHOICE wants to know your views – do you think in Calories? Even if you have a good handle on kilojoules, do you often hear references to Calories? And have you found examples of ‘high energy’ or ‘low kilojoule’ products? Make a comment below, or email us at


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