Carbohydrates

What you’ll learn to do: Summarize the roles carbohydrates play in biological systems

Are carbohydrates good for you? People who wish to lose weight are often told that carbohydrates are bad for them and should be avoided. Some diets completely forbid carbohydrate consumption, claiming that a low-carbohydrate diet helps people to lose weight faster. However, carbohydrates have been an important part of the human diet for thousands of years; artifacts from ancient civilizations show the presence of wheat, rice, and corn in our ancestors’ storage areas.

Carbohydrates should be supplemented with proteins, vitamins, and fats to be parts of a well-balanced diet. Calorie-wise, a gram of carbohydrate provides 4.3 Kcal. For comparison, fats provide 9 Kcal/g, a less desirable ratio. Carbohydrates contain soluble and insoluble elements; the insoluble part is known as fiber, which is mostly cellulose. Fiber has many uses; it promotes regular bowel movement by adding bulk, and it regulates the rate of consumption of blood glucose. Fiber also helps to remove excess cholesterol from the body. In addition, a meal containing whole grains and vegetables gives a feeling of fullness. As an immediate source of energy, glucose is broken down during the process of cellular respiration, which produces ATP, the energy currency of the cell. Without the consumption of carbohydrates, the availability of “instant energy” would be reduced.

Eliminating carbohydrates from the diet is not the best way to lose weight. A low-calorie diet that is rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean meat, together with plenty of exercise and plenty of water, is the more sensible way to lose weight.

Learning Outcomes

  • Distinguish between monosaccharides, disaccharides, and polysaccharides
  • Identify several major functions of carbohydrates

Most people are familiar with carbohydrates, one type of macromolecule, especially when it comes to what we eat. To lose weight, some individuals adhere to “low-carb” diets. Athletes, in contrast, often “carb-load” before important competitions to ensure that they have enough energy to compete at a high level. Carbohydrates are, in fact, an essential part of our diet; grains, fruits, and vegetables are all natural sources of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates provide energy to the body, particularly through glucose, a simple sugar that is a component of starch and an ingredient in many staple foods. Carbohydrates also have other important functions in humans, animals, and plants.

Molecular Structures

Carbohydrates can be represented by the formula (CH2O)n, where n is the number of carbons in the molecule. In other words, the ratio of carbon to hydrogen to oxygen is 1:2:1 in carbohydrate molecules. This formula also explains the origin of the term “carbohydrate”: the components are carbon (“carbo”) and the components of water (hence, “hydrate”). Carbohydrates are classified into three subtypes: monosaccharides, disaccharides, and polysaccharides.

Monosaccharides

Monosaccharides (mono– = “one”; sacchar– = “sweet”) are simple sugars, the most common of which is glucose. In monosaccharides, the number of carbons usually ranges from three to seven. Most monosaccharide names end with the suffix –ose. If the sugar has an aldehyde group (the functional group with the structure R-CHO), it is known as an aldose, and if it has a ketone group (the functional group with the structure RC(=O)R′), it is known as a ketose. Depending on the number of carbons in the sugar, they also may be known as trioses (three carbons), pentoses (five carbons), and or hexoses (six carbons). See Figure 1 for an illustration of the monosaccharides.

The molecular structures of glyceraldehyde, an aldose, and dihydroxyacetone, a ketose, are shown. Both sugars have a three-carbon backbone. Glyceraldehyde has a carbonyl group (c double bonded to O) at one end of the carbon chain with hydroxyl (OH) groups attached to the other carbons. Dihydroxyacetone has a carbonyl group in the middle of the chain and alcohol groups at each end. The molecular structures of linear forms of ribose, a pentose, and glucose, a hexose, are also shown. Both ribose and glucose are aldoses with a carbonyl group at the end of chain,and hydroxyl groups attached to the other carbons.

Figure 1. Monosaccharides are classified based on the position of their carbonyl group and the number of carbons in the backbone. Aldoses have a carbonyl group (indicated in green) at the end of the carbon chain, and ketoses have a carbonyl group in the middle of the carbon chain. Trioses, pentoses, and hexoses have three, five, and six carbon backbones, respectively.

The chemical formula for glucose is C6H12O6. In humans, glucose is an important source of energy. During cellular respiration, energy is released from glucose, and that energy is used to help make adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Plants synthesize glucose using carbon dioxide and water, and glucose in turn is used for energy requirements for the plant. Excess glucose is often stored as starch that is catabolized (the breakdown of larger molecules by cells) by humans and other animals that feed on plants.

Galactose and fructose are other common monosaccharides — galactose is found in milk sugars and fructose is found in fruit sugars. Although glucose, galactose, and fructose all have the same chemical formula (C6H12O6), they differ structurally and chemically (and are known as isomers) because of the different arrangement of functional groups around the asymmetric carbon; all of these monosaccharides have more than one asymmetric carbon.

Monosaccharides can exist as a linear chain or as ring-shaped molecules; in aqueous solutions they are usually found in ring forms.

Disaccharides

Disaccharides (di– = “two”) form when two monosaccharides undergo a dehydration reaction (also known as a condensation reaction or dehydration synthesis). During this process, the hydroxyl group of one monosaccharide combines with the hydrogen of another monosaccharide, releasing a molecule of water and forming a covalent bond (Figure 2).

Diagram of glucose and fructose molecules forming a covalent bond and becoming sucrose. Glucose is shaped like a hexagon and fructose is shaped like a pentagon. Sucrose is made up of a hexagon and pentagon bound together.

Figure 2. Sucrose is produced from the chemical reaction between two simple sugars called glucose and fructose.

Common disaccharides include lactose, maltose, and sucrose. Lactose is a disaccharide consisting of the monomers glucose and galactose. It is found naturally in milk. Maltose, or malt sugar, is a disaccharide formed by a dehydration reaction between two glucose molecules. The most common disaccharide is sucrose, or table sugar, which is composed of the monomers glucose and fructose.

Polysaccharides

A long chain of monosaccharides linked by covalent bonds is known as a polysaccharide (poly– = “many”). The chain may be branched or unbranched, and it may contain different types of monosaccharides. Polysaccharides may be very large molecules. Starch, glycogen, cellulose, and chitin are examples of polysaccharides.

Starch is the stored form of sugars in plants and is made up of amylose and amylopectin (both polymers of glucose). Plants are able to synthesize glucose, and the excess glucose is stored as starch in different plant parts, including roots and seeds. The starch that is consumed by animals is broken down into smaller molecules, such as glucose. The cells can then absorb the glucose.

The chemical structures of amylose and amylopectin are shown. Amylose consists of unbranched chains of glucose subunits, and amylopectin consists of branched chains of glucose subunits.

Figure 3. Amylose and amylopectin are two different forms of starch. Glycogen is the storage form of glucose in humans and other vertebrates and is made up of monomers of glucose.

Glycogen is the storage form of glucose in humans and other vertebrates, and is made up of monomers of glucose. Glycogen is the animal equivalent of starch and is a highly branched molecule usually stored in liver and muscle cells. Whenever glucose levels decrease, glycogen is broken down to release glucose.

Cellulose is one of the most abundant natural biopolymers. The cell walls of plants are mostly made of cellulose, which provides structural support to the cell. Wood and paper are mostly cellulosic in nature. Cellulose is made up of glucose monomers that are linked by bonds between particular carbon atoms in the glucose molecule.

Every other glucose monomer in cellulose is flipped over and packed tightly as extended long chains. This gives cellulose its rigidity and high tensile strength—which is so important to plant cells. Cellulose passing through our digestive system is called dietary fiber. While the glucose-glucose bonds in cellulose cannot be broken down by human digestive enzymes, herbivores such as cows, buffalos, and horses are able to digest grass that is rich in cellulose and use it as a food source. In these animals, certain species of bacteria reside in the rumen (part of the digestive system of herbivores) and secrete the enzyme cellulase. The appendix also contains bacteria that break down cellulose, giving it an important role in the digestive systems of ruminants. Cellulases can break down cellulose into glucose monomers that can be used as an energy source by the animal.

The chemical structure of cellulose is shown. Cellulose consists of unbranched chains of glucose subunits.

Figure 4. In cellulose, glucose monomers are linked in unbranched chains by β 1-4 glycosidic linkages. Because of the way the glucose subunits are joined, every glucose monomer is flipped relative to the next one resulting in a linear, fibrous structure.

A photograph shows a bee in flight, getting nectar from a flower.

Figure 5. Insects have a hard outer exoskeleton made of chitin, a type of polysaccharide.

As shown in Figure 4, every other glucose monomer in cellulose is flipped over, and the monomers are packed tightly as extended long chains. This gives cellulose its rigidity and high tensile strength—which is so important to plant cells.

Carbohydrates serve other functions in different animals. Arthropods, such as insects, spiders, and crabs, have an outer skeleton, called the exoskeleton, which protects their internal body parts. This exoskeleton is made of the biological macromolecule chitin, which is a nitrogenous carbohydrate. It is made of repeating units of a modified sugar containing nitrogen.

Registered Dietitian

Chef Brenda with foodservice staff

Figure 6. Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN)Chef Brenda Thompson works with foodservice staff to assemble her breakfast burrito recipe during the chef designed school taste testing in Idaho. Thanks to a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Team Nutrition grant RDN Chef Brenda Thompson, developed recipes for the Chef Designed School Lunch cookbook.

Obesity is a worldwide health concern, and many diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, are becoming more prevalent because of obesity. This is one of the reasons why registered dietitians are increasingly sought after for advice. Registered dietitians help plan food andnutrition programs for individuals in various settings. They often work with patients in health-care facilities, designing nutrition plans to prevent and treat diseases. For example, dietitians may teach a patient with diabetes how to manage blood-sugar levels by eating the correct types and amounts of carbohydrates. Dietitians may also work in nursing homes, schools, and private practices.

To become a registered dietitian, one needs to earn at least a bachelor’s degree in dietetics, nutrition, food technology, or a related field. In addition, registered dietitians must complete a supervised internship program and pass a national exam. Those who pursue careers in dietetics take courses in nutrition, chemistry, biochemistry, biology, microbiology, and human physiology. Dietitians must become experts in the chemistry and functions of food (proteins, carbohydrates, and fats).

In Summary: Structure and Function of Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are a group of macromolecules that are a vital energy source for the cell and provide structural support to plant cells, fungi, and all of the arthropods that include lobsters, crabs, shrimp, insects, and spiders. Carbohydrates are classified as monosaccharides, disaccharides, and polysaccharides depending on the number of monomers in the molecule. Monosaccharides are linked by glycosidic bonds that are formed as a result of dehydration reactions, forming disaccharides and polysaccharides with the elimination of a water molecule for each bond formed. Glucose, galactose, and fructose are common monosaccharides, whereas common disaccharides include lactose, maltose, and sucrose. Starch and glycogen, examples of polysaccharides, are the storage forms of glucose in plants and animals, respectively. The long polysaccharide chains may be branched or unbranched. Cellulose is an example of an unbranched polysaccharide, whereas amylopectin, a constituent of starch, is a highly branched molecule. Storage of glucose, in the form of polymers like starch of glycogen, makes it slightly less accessible for metabolism; however, this prevents it from leaking out of the cell or creating a high osmotic pressure that could cause excessive water uptake by the cell.

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