When asked what carbohydrates are, most say that
they are substances for energy. Others reply that carbohydrates are sugars. Both
answers are actually partially correct, as
carbohydrates do much more. Aside from functioning as energy sources or fuels, carbohydrates
also play a structural role in the body. Carbs (abbreviation for carbohydrates) also provide
contribute to immunological function via cell-surface antigens. Some types of carbs are
chemically altered to synthesize hormones or chemicals that will influence or exert control
over other tissues of the body, as part of the endocrine system. Carbs help our joints by helping
in the attraction of water and maintenance of the 'spongy' nature of cartilage and the joint as
a unit as well.
speaking technically, carbs are involved in much of the body's biochemistry, either directly or
As yo may have gathered, the term 'carbohydrates' does not always refer to one substance, but rather
to a diverse group of 'sugars'.
Keep in mind that when some people use the term carbohydrates, they are simply referring to glucose, or
glycogen, which is the storage form of glucose.
It's important to know, however, that there are different types of carbohydrates, each with different
chemical compositions. This is important, because there are sugars, or carbohydrates and their
derivatives that are toxic to the human, such as the digitalis glycoside, from the deadly Nightshade Plant,
and others we shall discuss.
Thus, carbohydrate is an "umbrella term", denoting many different molecules.
Before discussing many of the properties of carbohydrates and types, you'll find a simple chemistry review below.
This review is intended to give those, who are unfamiliar with the chemical world, a little insight into the
of carbohydrates and other chemicals.
Our chemical composition
Everything on this planet is composed of atoms. You, every other person
and animal, your car, bicycle, plants, water, the air we breath, everything we touch, etc.
Although each of these things are differen tin the way they look, they all have one thing in common -
They are all are composed of
tiny little elements called atoms.
A bar of pure gold (100 percent or 24 karat) is composed of nothing else but atoms of gold -
many many tiny atoms. These atoms are so small, that you could litereally fit billions of them on the tip
of a very sharp needle. So, if you took a bar of gold and kept dividing it in half, eventually, you'd reach
apoint where there was only a single atom of gold. You could no longer divide this - if you tried to split
this single atom of gold, it would no longer be gold. In fact, this is what they do in nuclear power plants to
create energy - they split atoms, and this creates vast amounts of energy - which is risky business. But you
get the picture now! Atoms are very small single units of an element.
So, we can say that a bar of gold, is composed of the 'element, gold'. There are quite a few
elements in nature. Aside from gold, carbon is an element. We can use it for steel production, and
our body's also use it as a skeleton for particular hormones and other components.
Sodium, potassion, calcium are also elements as well. In fact, there are 94 elements known to
compose everything in and on our planet. There may even be undiscovered elements in other plnets.
GBut that's not a problem. Because with atoms of each element, we can combine them in different ways in
order to create billions of different chemicals and even mixtures of things.
It's like having 94 different colored bricks that you could use to build a house with. Substituting
just a single different colored brick in one area, makes that house unique in appearance.
The same is true with combining atoms of the different elements. However, substituting different atoms, does
not merely change the look. It may change the smell, and even effect on the chemical effect it can exert on the
For example, changing a single atom in structure of our DNA can cause a very noticeable effect in our makeup.
When we combine 2 or more atoms together, the new unit is called a molecule.
Common table salt is a molecule - it composed of 1 atom of sodium and 1 atom of chlorine.
More on atoms..
Now we know that the atom is the smallest piece or building block
of an object, that still retains its properties (color, weight, melting point, boiling point, etc.).
The gas, helium floats because of its properties (its weight is low, it's boiling point is room temperature
- that's why it's floating !).
Gold is malleable (you can bite down on a gold nugget to test if it's genuine and you will see teeth marks
in it), and it conducts electricity.
Each element has its own specific properties and that's what makes them so useful when combining them
into molecules - the new properties of the molecule, are a combination of the physical properties
of the atoms that you've just combined.
You can even invent your own molecule that has fantastic new properties. Maybe it will help cure
or stabilize a condition. This is what people have done to make drugs such as antihypertensives
to lower blood pressure. These drugs are simply molecules with a certain property.
other molecules can take away pain, such as opiods. But we also have to be careful, because many molecules
are poisons to humans, animals and life forms.
It's a violent chemical world out there in many respects,but with many molecular wonders as well.
There are even 'subtle' differences in some atoms such as those of the element Hydrogen.
These 'atomic differences' are not really relevant
(except to maybe Star Trek fans, geeks like myself, and science class, so I'll spare you the
However, if you absolutely insist on being a "clever-clogs", you can
click here to find out more.
After all, we wouldn't want to be accused of intellectual neglect.
How we represent molecules for learning
When we make a molecule, we have to name it ! If it's a small molecule (composed of only 2 atoms),
we can usually name the molecule by combining the names of the 2 atoms composing it.
For example, common table salt that we sprinkle on our food is
composed of 1 atom of sodium and 1 atom of chlorine. This can be written in shorthand
1Na + 1Cl -----> 1NaCl
This simply means that 1 atom of sodium (Na) bonded to 1 atom of chlorine (Cl) giving us
1 molecule of salt (sodium chloride, abbreviated, NaCl). The illustration
below demonstrates the simple structural formula of the NaCl molecule.
See how easy it is to name small molecules. Keep in mind that we can make very large molecules, containing
dozens and even hundreds of atoms. It would be cumbersome to name the molecule by naming each atom. Instead,
we use shortcuts and create new names for identifiable groups of atoms in this large molecule.
We are going to teach you about this along the way as we discuss different molecules. Remember, these
molecules are also what we eat and they act as nutrients as well. The vitamins, carbs, fats, and proteins
are all molecules.
Now that we've discussed some basics of chemistry, we can chat about carbohydrates.
Defining the carbohydrate
Let us consider the group of molecules we call carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates follow a set of chemical structural pattern. We saw that salt is simply
sodium and chlorine combined together. A carbohydrate is
also a bunch of atoms combined together. Carbohydrates on the other hand, are composed of the atoms carbon (C),
hydrogen (H), and oxygen (O), compared to salt, which is just sodium and chlorine.
The carbon, hydrogen and oxygen are arranged in a
typical pattern for all carbohydrates.
Virtually all carbohydrates follow this pattern, so you will
always be able to identify one when you see its structure.
And remember, just as
there are different types of salts, there are also different types of carbohydrates.
Table salt as we've seen is NaCL (sdium and chlorine). We can also make a salt with
Potassium and Chlorine. This would be called Potassium Chloride, and this is what we buy
when we want a 'salt substitute' for health reasons. To be exactl, potassium chloride (KCl) is not
a salt substitute, because it is also a salt. What they really need to put on the package of this product
is label it 'Substitute for Sodium Chloride'. The thing to keep in mind is that both are salts.
And we really need both of them to live. Just smaller amounts sometimes.
Now that we know carbohydrates are composed of carbon, hydrogen,
and oxygen, let's take a look at a basic carbohydrate or 'sugar' molecule.
The above illustration shows the structure of a carbohydrate
molecule (this particular one is called glucose).
We can see that carbons are bonded together in a ring, with bonding
to other atoms on the side.
We call these side groups, functional groups.
This typical carbohydrate structure is shared by all types of carbohydrates. This simply
means that different carbohydrates may have additional atoms bonded to this structure -
and the substitution of just one atom in this molecule, gives us a completely different sugar.
Then we can name this different sugar. Examples, are glucose (table sugar), fructose (sugar found in
foods such as fruit), lactose (sugar found in milk). There's a long list of sugars out there,
and the list has been included for you as well, just in case you're interested in these fun facts
of how various sugars we come into contact with can affect us.
Carbohydrate Guide - A well-stocked list of common carbohydrates
Carbohydrate Types and Functions
Carbs - Sleep and Energy Levels