1.3.2. More About Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the perfect nutrient to meet your body’s nutritional needs. They nourish your brain and nervous system, provide energy to all of your cells when within proper caloric limits, and help keep your body fit and lean. Specifically, digestible carbohydrates provide bulk in foods, vitamins, and minerals, while indigestible carbohydrates provide a good amount of fiber with a host of other health benefits. Plants synthesize the fast-releasing carbohydrate, glucose, from carbon dioxide in the air and water, and by harnessing the sun’s energy. Recall that plants convert the energy in sunlight to chemical energy in the molecule, glucose. Plants use glucose to make other larger, more slow-releasing carbohydrates. When we eat plants we harvest the energy of glucose to support life’s processes.

Figure Carbohydrate Classification Scheme.

Carbohydrates are broken down into two subgroups: simple and complex carbohydrates. These subgroups are further categorized as mono-, di-, or polysaccharides. Source: Carbohydrates

The simplest unit of a carbohydrate is a monosaccharide. Carbohydrates are broadly classified into two subgroups, simple (“fast-releasing”) and complex (“slow-releasing”). Simple carbohydrates are further grouped into the monosaccharides and disaccharides. Complex carbohydrates are long chains of monosaccharides.

Simple/Fast-Releasing Carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates are also known more simply as “sugars” and are grouped as either monosaccharides or disaccharides. Monosaccharides include glucose, fructose, and galactose, and the disaccharides include lactose, maltose, and sucrose.

Simple carbohydrates stimulate the sweetness taste sensation, which is the most sensitive of all taste sensations. Even extremely low concentrations of sugars in foods will stimulate the sweetness taste sensation. Sweetness varies between the different carbohydrate types—some are much sweeter than others. Fructose is the top naturally-occurring sugar in sweetness value.


For all organisms from bacteria to plants to animals, glucose is the preferred fuel source. The brain is completely dependent on glucose as its energy source (except during extreme starvation conditions).

Most absorbed galactose is utilized for energy production in cells after its conversion to glucose. (Galactose is one of two simple sugars that are bound together to make up the sugar found in milk. It is later freed during the digestion process.)

Mostly found in fruits, honey, and sugarcane, fructose is one of the most common monosaccharides in nature. It is also found in soft drinks, cereals, and other products sweetened with high fructose corn syrup.

Lastly, there are the sugar alcohols, which are industrially synthesized derivatives of monosaccharides. Some examples of sugar alcohols are sorbitol, xylitol, and glycerol. (Xylitol is similar in sweetness as table sugar). Sugar alcohols are often used in place of table sugar to sweeten foods as they are incompletely digested and absorbed, and therefore less caloric. The bacteria in your mouth opposes them, hence sugar alcohols do not cause tooth decay. Interestingly, the sensation of “coolness” that occurs when chewing gum that contains sugar alcohols comes from them dissolving in the mouth, a chemical reaction that requires heat from the inside of the mouth.


Sucrose, which contains both glucose and fructose molecules, is otherwise known as table sugar. Sucrose is also found in many fruits and vegetables, and at high concentrations in sugar beets and sugarcane, which are used to make table sugar.

Lactose, which is commonly known as milk sugar, is composed of one glucose unit and one galactose unit. Lactose is prevalent in dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and cheese.

Maltose consists of two glucose molecules bonded together. It is a common breakdown product of plant starches and is rarely found in foods as a disaccharide.

Complex/Slow-Releasing Carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates are polysaccharides, long chains of monosaccharides that may be branched or not branched. There are two main groups of polysaccharides: starches and fibers.


Starch molecules are found in abundance in grains, legumes, and root vegetables, such as potatoes.

Eating raw foods containing starches provides very little energy as the digestive system has a hard time breaking them down. Cooking breaks down the crystal structure of starches, making them much easier to break down in the human body. The starches that remain intact throughout digestion are called resistant starches. Bacteria in the gut can break some of these down and may benefit gastrointestinal health. Isolated and modified starches are used widely in the food industry and during cooking as food thickeners.

Humans and animals store glucose energy from starches in the form of the very large molecule, glycogen. It has many branches that allow it to break down quickly when energy is needed by cells in the body. It is predominantly found in liver and muscle tissue in animals.

Dietary Fibers

Humans do not produce the enzymes that can break down dietary fiber; however, bacteria in the large intestine (colon) do. Dietary fibers are very beneficial to our health. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee states that there is enough scientific evidence to support that diets high in fiber reduce the risk for obesity and diabetes, which are primary risk factors for cardiovascular disease. [1]

Dietary fiber is categorized as either water-soluble or insoluble. Some examples of soluble fibers are inulin, pectin, and guar gum and they are found in peas, beans, oats, barley, and rye. Cellulose and lignin are insoluble fibers and a few dietary sources of them are whole-grain foods, flax, cauliflower, and avocados. Cellulose is the most abundant fiber in plants, making up the cell walls and providing structure. Soluble fibers are more easily accessible to bacterial enzymes in the large intestine so they can be broken down to a greater extent than insoluble fibers, but even some breakdown of cellulose and other insoluble fibers occurs.

The last class of fiber is functional fiber. Functional fibers have been added to foods and have been shown to provide health benefits to humans. Functional fibers may be extracted from plants and purified or synthetically made. An example of a functional fiber is psyllium-seed husk. Scientific studies show that consuming psyllium-seed husk reduces blood-cholesterol levels and this health claim has been approved by the FDA. Total dietary fiber intake is the sum of dietary fiber and functional fiber consumed.

Figure Dietary Fiber.

Fiber comes from a variety of sources in the diet. Source: image by Allison Calabrese / CC BY 4.0

Digestion and Absorption of Carbohydrates

From the Mouth to the Stomach

The mechanical and chemical digestion of carbohydrates begins in the mouth. Chewing, also known as mastication, crumbles the carbohydrate foods into smaller and smaller pieces. The salivary glands in the oral cavity secrete saliva that coats the food particles. Only about five percent of starches are broken down in the mouth. (This is a good thing as more glucose in the mouth would lead to more tooth decay.) When carbohydrates reach the stomach no further chemical breakdown occurs because the amylase enzyme in saliva does not function in the acidic conditions of the stomach. But mechanical breakdown is ongoing—the strong peristaltic contractions of the stomach mix the carbohydrates into the more uniform mixture of chyme.

From the Stomach to the Small Intestine

The chyme is gradually expelled into the upper part of the small intestine. Upon entry of the chyme into the small intestine, the pancreas releases pancreatic juice through a duct. Once carbohydrates are chemically broken down into single sugar units they are then transported into the inside of intestinal cells.

When people do not have enough of the enzyme lactase, lactose is not sufficiently broken down resulting in a condition called lactose intolerance. The undigested lactose moves to the large intestine where bacteria are able to digest it. The bacterial digestion of lactose produces gases leading to symptoms of diarrhea, bloating, and abdominal cramps. Lactose intolerance usually occurs in adults and is associated with race. The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearing House states that African Americans, Hispanic Americans, American Indians, and Asian Americans have much higher incidences of lactose intolerance while those of northern European descent have the least.[2] Most people with lactose intolerance can tolerate some amount of dairy products in their diet. The severity of the symptoms depends on how much lactose is consumed and the degree of lactase deficiency.

Absorption: Going to the Blood Stream

The cells in the small intestine have membranes that contain many transport proteins in order to get the monosaccharides and other nutrients into the blood where they can be distributed to the rest of the body. The first organ to receive glucose, fructose, and galactose is the liver. The liver takes them up and converts galactose to glucose, breaks fructose into even smaller carbon-containing units, and either stores glucose as glycogen or exports it back to the blood. How much glucose the liver exports to the blood is under hormonal control and you will soon discover that even the glucose itself regulates its concentrations in the blood.

Maintaining Blood Glucose Levels: The Pancreas and Liver

Glucose levels in the blood are tightly controlled, as having either too much or too little glucose in the blood can have severe health consequences. A glucose thermostat is located within the cells of the pancreas. After eating a meal containing carbohydrates glucose levels rise in the blood.

Insulin-secreting cells in the pancreas sense the increase in blood glucose and release the hormone, insulin, into the blood. Insulin sends a signal to the body’s cells to remove glucose from the blood by transporting it into different organ cells around the body and using it to make energy. In the case of muscle tissue and the liver, insulin sends the biological message to store glucose away as glycogen. The presence of insulin in the blood signifies to the body that glucose is available for fuel. As glucose is transported into the cells around the body, the blood glucose levels decrease. Insulin has an opposing hormone called glucagon. Glucagon-secreting cells in the pancreas sense the drop in glucose and, in response, release glucagon into the blood. Glucagon communicates to the cells in the body to stop using all the glucose. More specifically, it signals the liver to break down glycogen and release the stored glucose into the blood, so that glucose levels stay within the target range and all cells get the needed fuel to function properly.

Figure The Regulation of Glucose.

Glucose uptake is regulated in the peripheral organs by insulin, which is secreted by the pancreas. Source: image by Allison Calabrese / CC BY 4.0

Leftover Carbohydrates: The Large Intestine

Almost all of the carbohydrates, except for dietary fiber and resistant starches, are efficiently digested and absorbed into the body. Some of the remaining indigestible carbohydrates are broken down by enzymes released by bacteria in the large intestine. The products of bacterial digestion of these slow-releasing carbohydrates are short-chain fatty acids and some gases. The yield of energy from dietary fiber is about 2 kilocalories per gram for humans, but is highly dependent upon the fiber type, with soluble fibers and resistant starches yielding more energy than insoluble fibers. Since dietary fiber is digested much less in the gastrointestinal tract than other carbohydrate types (simple sugars, many starches) the rise in blood glucose after eating them is less, and slower. These physiological attributes of high-fiber foods (i.e. whole grains) are linked to a decrease in weight gain and reduced risk of chronic diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Figure Overview of Carbohydrate Digestion.

Carbohydrates are broken down, digested and absorbed at different points in the digestive system. Source: image by Allison Calabrese / CC BY 4.0

A Carbohydrate Feast

A typical American Thanksgiving meal contains many foods that are dense in carbohydrates, with the majority of those being simple sugars and starches. These types of carbohydrate foods are rapidly digested and absorbed. Blood glucose levels rise quickly causing a spike in insulin levels. Contrastingly, foods containing high amounts of fiber are like time-release capsules of sugar. A measurement of the effects of a carbohydrate-containing food on blood-glucose levels is called the glycemic response.


  1. Part D. Section 5: Carbohydrates. In Report of the DGAC on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, US Department of Agriculture. 2010. http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/DietaryGuidelines/2010/DGAC/Report/D-5-Carbohydrates.pdf. Accessed September 30, 2011.
  2. Lactose Intolerance. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearing House. http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/lactoseintolerance/. Updated April 23, 2012. Accessed September 22, 2017.


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Fundamentals of Health and Physical Activity by Kerri Z. Delaney and Leslie Barker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.