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An Overview of the Different Types of Carbohydrates

July 30th, 2009

carbohydrate-types.jpgEvery diet needs a daily dose of carbohydrates, but what are they exactly? What do they do for the body? Understanding these life-giving substances is the first step to healthier and smarter living.

Sugar rush, anyone? In the realm of nutrition, when carbohydrates are discussed, perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is sugar. However, carbs are more than just sweeteners for foods, as they are among the most essential compounds needed by the body’s cells to power its life processes.

First of all, why are these substances called carbohydrates? There are only three types of atoms present in carbs: carbon (C), hydrogen (H), and oxygen (O). Early scientists termed the H and O combination as water, as in H2O. And adding a C to it is like hydrating (or adding water to) carbon; hence, the name: carbohydrate.

In the different types of carbohydrates, the number of C, H, and O atoms vary greatly. Furthermore, the functions of certain carb types in the human body can also be very diverse. In terms of the size of molecules, a carbohydrate can belong in any of these groups: monosaccharides, disaccharides, and polysaccharides.


They are the most basic form of carbohydrates, also known as “simple sugars.” The body’s cells have the ability to transport these small substances in and out, using their by-products for various processes. Some examples are:

Glucose: also called the basic energy unit of the body. Most of the larger sugar types present in foods contain very long chains of up to hundreds of glucose molecules. Your body and its systems have the power to function because of fuel from the by-products of glucose metabolism. (Think sugar high).

Galactose: a simple sugar found in dairy products and foods like sugar beets, gums, sweeteners, celery, and honey. It is also used in some tart-flavored ingredients to make them sweet.

Fructose: sometimes called “fruit sugar.” It is an essential component in the food-making process of plants. Foods high in fructose include cabbage, lettuce, peaches, and blackberries. Corn syrup also has a high fructose content.


As the name implies, these are sugars formed by two monosaccharides through a covalent bond. Disaccharides have more specialized functions in the human body, as well as vital roles in the food and nutrition industry. Here are some examples:

Sucrose: It is a combination of glucose and fructose, and is commonly known as table sugar. A high amount of this in the diet is not recommended, so people turn to other sweeteners like stevia as alternatives.

Lactose: It is formed by the bond between glucose and galactose. The human body can produce certain amounts of this sugar, a process which is active in pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. Lactose is also present in dairy products.

Maltose: Two glucose molecules form maltose. It is high in grains like malt, brown rice, sorghum, and barley, and is an essential ingredient in the production of beer. In the body, maltose is important in the digestion of larger sugars.


Composed of very long chains of carbohydrates, polysaccharide molecules are fairly large; they are not immediately used up by the body. Several processes are needed in order to break down these chains so that cells can uptake the simpler sugars. The most common food examples of these complex carbohydrates are:

Starch: The main product of the food making process of plants. Glucose is the primary component of starch, which is broken down in the body by enzymes in saliva. High starch foods are rice, potatoes, pasta, bread, peas, beans, and corn.

Cellulose: The cell walls of plants are protected by this tough complex sugar, which helps retain the water needed for them to survive. Foods rich in fiber like celery, pears, apples, and leafy greens contain a substantial amount of cellulose. While humans cannot break down cellulose, a fiber-rich diet helps maintain healthy digestion.

Now you know some of the basics of your carbohydrates. It helps to be familiar with these types and the food sources you can get them from. So next time you feel that surge of energy after a box of glazed donuts, you can tell yourself: it’s not just a sugar rush — it’s a glucose overload!

Anna Brillon is an online freelance writer who has produced 10 articles and 8 sales for Constant Content. If you also want to showcase your writing talent and have something published here, don’t be afraid to use the Contact page and send us your favorite article.

One Response to “An Overview of the Different Types of Carbohydrates”

  1. comment number 1 by: Jill Brock

    Hi thanks for the overview on carbs. You might want to check out corn syrup on wiki. corn syrup without added fructose is almost 100% glucose. Not great for diabetics.

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