What Is a Carbohydrate?

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When carbon, hydrogen and oxygen combine in green plants to form organic compounds, they produce a major class of animal foods known as carbohydrates.

The term “carbohydrate” has been part of the English language only since the mid-19thcentury.

It derived from the French phrase “hydrate de carbone,” which was originally used to describe various sugars, starches and fibers of the monosaccharide class, all of which have empirical chemical compositions that can be expressed as Cn(H2O)n.

Of course, early humans were familiar with carbohydrates long before chemists started referring to them as glucose, lactose, maltose, ribose and other “-oses.” The carbohydrates cavemen consumed as food were mostly limited to those found in whole fruits and leafy vegetables.

One of the earliest forms of carbohydrate to be processed was the sweet “sucrose” found in sugarcane. There is evidence that it was extracted for consumption as an energy-boosting medicine by primitive tribes of Papua New Guinea as far back as 12,000 years ago.

By 6000 B.C.E., a fibrous carbohydrate found in cotton, “cellulose,” was being cultivated and processed in India for making cloth. Two thousand years later, Egyptians began using a starchy carbohydrate as an adhesive for papyrus.

It is no accident that ancient civilizations used carbohydrate-containing plants for purposes other than as foods. The ones high in fiber are difficult to digest and the ones high in simple sugars are not ripe most of the year.

But carbohydrates are necessary to life. An insufficiency can cause malnutrition, and that explains why the human body adapted itself to maintain its own supply.

Through a process known as gluconeogenesis, the body turns other substances into useful carbs. What’s more, carbohydrates are naturally stored in muscles and the liver, ensuring that the brain can function and body can move during periods of carbohydrate deprivation.

Potatoes, cereals, rice, wheat and other grains contain carbohydrates in the form of starch, which the body converts into the complex sugar called maltose.

By contrast, collards, kale, spinach, turnip greens, nuts, seeds and berries contain high concentrations of non-digestible carbohydrates, which are variously referred to as dietary fiber, crude fiber or roughage.

One of today’s most familiar carbohydrate forms, refined sugar, was not produced or consumed in quantity until the 17thcentury. That’s when refineries in Europe sprang up and farmers began growing sugar beets to supply the sucrose demanded by a Renaissance with a sweet tooth.

Over the next three hundred years, food products containing sucrose proliferated, followed by those containing fructose refined from corn, which is easily crystallized into dextrose (glucose) in the human body.

Unfortunately, processing strips away the vitamins and minerals that accompany natural sugars, leaving only tasty but non-nutritious carbs—the so-called “empty calories” that can lead to obesity.

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