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The Straight Dope

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Why do all cereals have the same number of calories per serving, regardless of what's in them? I have scrutinized countless nutrition labels over the years and have yet to see a cereal that didn't have 110 calories to the ounce. --Listener, Dick Whittington show, KIEV radio, Los Angeles

Hold it right there, buddy. Not all cereals have 110 calories per one-ounce serving, as you'd know if you ever spent any time in a supermarket cereal section. (Believe me, it's a sure cure for writer's block.) Post Grape-Nuts, for one, has 100 calories (excluding milk), while Quaker Crunchy Bran has 90. Still, many cereals do have 110, ranging from Lucky Charms to Spoon Size Shredded Wheat. There are a couple reasons for this. The simplest is that Food and Drug Administration guidelines for nutrition labeling require that when you have more than 50 calories, you have to round off to the nearest 10 in order to make things easier on the consumer. Cheerios, for instance, really have 106 calories per ounce, but they get rounded to 110.

Even so, it does seem suspicious that most cereals have 106 to 114 calories per serving regardless of what's in them. The explanation is that calorie count is more a function of weight than ingredients, at least when it comes to cereals. Protein and carbohydrates each provide about four calories per gram, regardless of the source, while fat provides nine calories. Fat content for most cereals is low--zero to two grams per ounce. You've got maybe a couple grams of noncaloric moisture and "ash," the food-tech term for minerals and stuff; with 28.35 grams per ounce, that leaves you 25, 26 grams of carbs and protein. Add it all up and round off and you get 110 calories.

OK, but why is the calorie count for bran cereals typically only 90 per serving? Turns out you don't count fiber, which is abundant in bran. Even though fiber is a carbohydrate, it passes through the body undigested, hence no calories. Post Fruit and Fibre, for example, has 22 grams of carbs, but 5 of those are fiber. Taking the other 17, plus 3 grams of protein and 1 of fat, gives us 89 calories, 90 rounded. I suppose it'd be nice if they explained all this on the side of the cereal box, but considering how hard it is to focus at 7 AM anyway, we're probably better off leaving well enough alone.

There are three English words that end with -gry. Two of them are "hungry" and "angry." What's the third? --Listener, Alan B. Colmes show, WNBC radio, New York

Every time I go on the radio I know this one's bound to come up sooner or later, along with "name an English word that contains all the vowels just once in the right order." (Answer: facetiously. Come on, you think I was born yesterday?) I don't know that I'd put either question on a par with the search for the unified field theory, but since you insist, here's the answer: the word is gry, meaning "one tenth of a line"--not, as one might guess in these degraded times, a unit of measurement in the drug trade, but rather part of the decimal system of linear measurement proposed by English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). A gry was a hundredth of an inch and a thousandth of a "philosophical foot." Too bad Locke's idea didn't catch on; the thought of measuring things in philosophical feet has an unquestionable poignance. The Oxford English Dictionary says gry is also an obsolete verb meaning to rage or roar.

But wait. Lest you think there is only one right answer to the truly cosmic questions of life, I must advise you of the existence of puggry and aggry, which also fill the bill. Puggry is an alternate spelling of puggree, meaning either an Indian turban or a scarf wound around a sun helmet with the end hanging down in back as a shade. An aggry bead, according to my Webster's Third, is a "variegated glass bead found buried in the earth in Ghana and England." As with many enigmatic dictionary definitions, this leaves one abubble with questions: Who buried them? And why Ghana and England? Sadly, we must defer the amazing answer till some later date.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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