The Chemistry of Carbohydrates

The dietary carbohydrates include sugars, starch, and fiber. Chemists describe the sugars as:

  • Monosaccharides (single sugars).
  • Disaccharides (double sugars).

Starch and fiber are:

  • Polysaccharides—compounds composed of chains of monosaccharide units.

All of these carbohydrates are composed of the single sugar glucose and other compounds that are much like glucose in composition and structure.


Three monosaccharides are important in nutrition: glucose, fructose, and galactose. All three monosaccharides have the same number and kinds of atoms but in different arrangements.


Most cells depend on glucose for their fuel to some extent, and the cells of the brain and the rest of the nervous system depend almost exclusively on glucose for their energy. The body can obtain this glucose from carbohydrates. To function optimally, the body must maintain blood glucose within limits that allow the cells to nourish themselves. A later section describes blood glucose regulation.


Fructose is the sweetest of the sugars. Fructose occurs naturally in fruits, in honey, and as part of table sugar. However, most fructose is consumed in sweet beverages such as soft drinks, in ready-to-eat cereals, and in other products sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup or other added sugars. Glucose and fructose are the most common monosaccharides in nature.


The third single sugar, galactose, occurs mostly as part of lactose, a disaccharide also known as milk sugar. During digestion, galactose is freed as a single sugar.


In disaccharides, pairs of single sugars are linked together. Three disaccharides are important in nutrition: maltose, sucrose, and lactose. All three contain glucose as one of their single sugars. The other monosaccharide is either another glucose (in maltose), fructose (in sucrose), or galactose (in lactose). 


Sucrose (table, or white, sugar) is the most familiar of the three disaccharides and is what people mean when they speak of “sugar.” This sugar is usually obtained by refining the juice from sugar beets or sugarcane to provide the brown, white, and powdered sugars available in the supermarket, but it occurs naturally in many fruits and vegetables. When a person eats a food containing sucrose, enzymes in the digestive tract split the sucrose into its glucose and fructose components.


Lactose is the principal carbohydrate of milk. Most human infants are born with the digestive enzymes necessary to split lactose into its two monosaccharide parts, glucose and galactose, so as to absorb it. Breast milk thus provides a simple, easily digested carbohydrate that meets an infant’s energy needs; many formulas do, too, because they are made from milk. Many people lose the ability to digest lactose after infancy.


The third disaccharide, maltose, is a plant sugar that consists of two glucose units. Maltose is produced whenever starch breaks down—as happens in plants when they break down their stored starch for energy and start to sprout and in human beings during carbohydrate digestion.


Unlike the sugars, which contain the three monosaccharides—glucose, fructose, and galactose—in different combinations, the polysaccharides are composed almost entirely of glucose (and, in some cases, other monosaccharides). Three types of polysaccharides are important in nutrition: glycogen, starch, and fibers.

Glycogen is a storage form of energy for human beings and animals; starch plays that role in plants; and fibers provide structure in stems, trunks, roots, leaves, and skins of plants. Both glycogen and starch are built entirely of glucose units; fibers are composed of a variety of monosaccharides and other carbohydrate derivatives.


Glycogen molecules are made of chains of glucose that are more highly branched than those of starch molecules. Glycogen is found in meats only to a limited extent and not at all in plants.* For this reason, glycogen is not a significant food source of carbohydrate, but it does play an important role in the body. The human body stores much of its glucose as glycogen in the liver and muscles.


Starch is a long, straight or branched chain of hundreds or thousands of glucose units linked together. These giant molecules are packed side by side in grains such as rice or wheat, in root crops and tubers such as yams and potatoes, and in legumes such as peas and beans. When a person eats the plant, the body splits the starch into glucose units and uses the glucose for energy.

All starchy foods come from plants. Grains are the richest food source of starch. In most human societies, people depend on a staple grain for much of their food energy: rice in Asia; wheat in Canada, the United States, and Europe; corn in much of Central and South America; and millet, rye, barley, and oats elsewhere. A second important source of starch is the legume (bean and pea) family.

Legumes include pea-nuts and “dry” beans such as butter beans, kidney beans, “baked” beans, black-eyed peas (cowpeas), chickpeas (garbanzo beans), and soybeans. Root vegetables (tubers) such as potatoes and yams are a third major source of starch, and in many non-Western societies, they are the primary starch sources. Grains, legumes, and tubers not only are rich in starch but may also contain abundant dietary fiber, protein, and other nutrients.


Dietary fibers are the structural parts of plants and thus are found in all plant-derived foods—vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes. Most dietary fibers are polysaccharides—chains of sugars—just as starch is, but in fibers the sugar units are held together by bonds that human digestive enzymes cannot break. Consequently, most dietary fibers pass through the body, providing little or no energy for its use. In addition to cellulose, fibers include the polysaccharides hemicellulose, pectins, gums, and mucilages, as well as the nonpolysaccharide lignins.

Cellulose is the main constituent of plant cell walls, so it is found in all vegetables, fruits, and legumes. Hemicellulose is the main constituent of cereal fibers. Pectins are abundant in vegetables and fruits, especially citrus fruits and apples. The food industry uses pectins to thicken jelly and keep salad dressing from separating. Gums and mucilages have similar structures and are used as additives or stabilizers by the food industry. Lignins are the tough, woody parts of plants; few foods people eat contain much lignin.

A few starches are classified as fibers. Known as resistant starches, these starches escape digestion and absorption in the small intestine. Starch may resist digestion for several reasons, including the individual’s efficiency in digesting starches and the food’s physical properties. Resistant starch is common in whole or partially milled grains, legumes, raw potatoes, and unripe bananas. Cooked potatoes, pasta, and rice that have been chilled also contain resistant starch. Similar to some fibers, resistant starch may support a healthy colon.

Although cellulose and other dietary fibers are not broken down by human enzymes, some fibers can be digested by bacteria in the human digestive tract. Bacterial fermentation of fibers can generate some absorbable products that can yield energy when metabolized. Food fibers, therefore, can contribute some energy (1.5 to 2.5 calories per gram), depending on the extent to which they break down in the body.

Fibers are divided into two general groups by their chemical and physical properties. In the first group are fibers that dissolve in water (soluble fibers). These form gels (are viscous) and are more readily digested by bacteria in the human large intestine (are easily fermented). Commonly found in barley, legumes, fruits, oats, and vegetables, these fibers are often associated with lower risks of chronic diseases (as discussed in a later section). In foods, soluble fibers add a pleasing consistency; for example, pectin puts the gel in jelly, and gums are added to salad dressings and other foods to thicken them.

Other fibers do not dissolve in water (insoluble fibers), do not form gels (are not viscous), and are less readily fermented. Insoluble fibers, such as cellulose and many hemicelluloses, are found in the outer layers of whole grains (bran), the strings of celery, the hulls of seeds, and the skins of corn kernels. These fibers retain their structure and rough texture even after hours of cooking. In the body, they aid the digestive system by easing elimination.


Carbohydrate is the body’s preferred energy source. Six sugars are important in nutrition: the three monosaccharides (glucose, fructose, and galactose) and the three disaccharides (sucrose, lactose, and maltose).

The three disaccharides are pairs of monosaccharides; each contains glucose paired with one of the three monosaccharides. The polysaccharides (chains of monosaccharides) are glycogen, starches, and fibers.

Both glycogen and starch are storage forms of glucose—glycogen in the body and starch in plants—and both yield energy for human use.

The dietary fibers also contain glucose (and other monosaccharides), but their bonds cannot be broken by human digestive enzymes, so they yield little, if any, energy.

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