Blog Directory - Blogged foodliterate: C is for Carbohydrate

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

C is for Carbohydrate

Now that everyone has recovered from their Thanskgiving carbohydrate-induced lethargy (or at least I hope you have), it's time to talk about those carbs. Carbohydrate, not surprisingly, means 'hydrates of carbon' (see told you) and has the chemical structure of Cx(H2O)y. Carbohydrates are really a large category of items that include sugars, dextrins, starches, pectin, cellulose, gums, and fiber. Carbs are saccharides, a word which comes from latin for 'sweet sand'.

The role of carbohydrates in human nutrition is to supply a readily accessible and quickly utilizable form of energy. They allow your body to spare its muscles (protein) from being broken down to supply the needed fuel. We may be complex creatures, but we run on the simplest of sugars, glucose. In fact, it is the only fuel our nervous systems and brain can use.
So let's start our foray into this topic with the simplest of the carbs - sugars. Sugars come in multiple forms: monosaccharides, disaccharides, oligosaccharides, and polysaccharides. As you can tell from the prefixes, they are made of sugar molecules ranging from one (mono) to many thousands (poly). Sugars also have the suffix '-ose', which designates them as being part of the sugar family. {For those of you who are chemistry junkies, this is the site for you.}

Monosaccharides are single sugar molecules, as I've mentioned, and the most important of these is glucose (also called dextrose). It has the chemical structure [C6(H2O)6] and exists in a ring (cyclic) formation. But there are other monosaccharides besides glucose such as fructose, xylose, galactose, and ribose.

Disaccharides are, as their name suggests, sugars comprised of two monosaccharides. They occur when the two monosaccharides join together and kick out a water (H2O) molecule in a dehydration reaction forming a glycosidic bond. Different combinations of monosaccharides come together to form different disaccharides. Glucose + Fructose = Sucrose (what we call table sugar), Glucose + Galactose = Lactose (milk sugar), and Glucose + Glucose = Maltose (malt sugar).

Oligosaccharides are sugars comprised of 4 to 8 monosaccharides (oligo means few) and are known as simple sugars. The most common are fructo-oligosaccharides which occur in vegetables (like asparagus & onions) and are short chains of fructose molecules. They are of particular interest these days because of research that proves they enhance the growth of beneficial gut bacteria - this is called a prebiotic effect. Because of this, food scientists are finding new applications where they can add oligosaccharides.

And lastly, polysaccharides are long chains (100+) of monosaccharides. Typically they are insoluble in water and are not sweet. You know some of them as starches and cellulose. There is also one which you may not be as familiar with (yet) called inulin. And like a fructo-oligosaccharide, has a prebiotic effect that aids in digestive health. Inulin belongs to a category of carbs called fructans. {For more information on inulin: click here}

So to recap - carbohydrates are the fuel our bodies run on. Sugars are the simplest forms and as you add on molecules, they become strings and those strings become chains, which makes them less soluble and less sweet. In the next post I will continue to discuss this category of carbohydrates and some of their individual details. Until next time - Stay sweet!

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