Food Chemistry Basics: Proteins, Fats, and Carbs (part 3) - Carbohydrates - Major Sugar Buzz, Glucose Is Energy Fuel, but Not by the Ton

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3. Carbohydrates

Carbs, or carbohydrates, seem to always be discussed as “high” or “low,” but never quite in between. The latest rage is “low carb.” When I was fueling long-distance races in my cardio endurance days, it was high carb with adequate protein, but keep fats low. The bodybuilders, no matter what else was happening, seemed less fat-phobic, drinking their eggs and guzzling their whole milk along with everything else they consumed.

The carbs range from the simple (sucrose or table sugar) to the complex (starch). The simplest building blocks of carbs are monosaccharides, single-unit molecules such as glucose, fructose, and galactose.

These molecules are rarely consumed in food as-is; they are the products of digestion that are absorbed from the small intestine into the bloodstream or liver (in the case of fructose). In other words, glucose and the others are usually connected together into disaccharides (two-unit sugars) or more complex food molecules called oligosaccharides (bigger-than-two-unit sugars resulting from the breakdown of complex polysugars). Polysaccharides are the most complex sugars, like starch or cellulose.

Figure 4 shows a sucrose molecule, which is what the table sugar you might sprinkle into your tea or coffee is made of. Sucrose is made up of a glucose molecule attached to a fructose molecule (so sucrose is actually about 50 percent fructose, which is worth keeping in mind if you want to reduce your daily fructose intake). Every carbohydrate is made of a carbon “backbone” with hydrogen and oxygen molecules attached to it. This combination of molecules gives carbohydrates their name.

A glucose attached to a fructose equals a sucrose (source: ); green is carbon, red is oxygen, and white is hydrogen

Figure 4. A glucose attached to a fructose equals a sucrose ; green is carbon, red is oxygen, and white is hydrogen

When my son was finished romping about a Vermont village on Halloween, 2011, he returned with a bag full of sucrose (I’m imploring him to give a lot of it away, and/or make it last months...). When you eat candy like a 3 Musketeers bar, that mush pile of addictively tasty sucrose makes it down to the small intestine, where the sucrose molecule has to be “cleaved” into smaller parts before the sugar or monosaccharides ever make it across the intestinal barrier to the bloodstream.

Nutrients have transporters that ferry them to the great beyond across the intestinal surfaces; no sugars beyond the simple sugars or monosaccharides have these transporters.

The sucrose molecules are split apart into glucose and fructose molecules with the aid of enzymes that are present in the small intestine. The enzyme in question for the 3 Musketeers bar is sucrase (the “-ase” suffix usually signals an enzyme, just like the “-ose” suffix means a sugar). Similarly, lactose, a dissacharide milk sugar, requires lactase to be digested, and maltose has its digestive companion maltase (hey, a sensible biochemical naming strategy!).

3.1 Major Sugar Buzz

The chocolate bar, the full-sized bar that I used to like to see in my own Halloween bag, contains 40 grams of sugar.3 This is about 160 calories that consists of 20 grams of glucose and 20 grams of fructose.

Glucose goes into the bloodstream, where it can be utilized by the brain for energy, or taken up by the muscle cells or the liver to be reassembled into glycogen, a special starch that animals like us store for later use (more on starch coming right up). Excess carbs can and often are stored as fat, via the sultriest term ever invented for body-fat-making processes: de novo lipogenesis (DNL). DNL takes place in the liver as well as in peripheral storage depots for your fats, like around your hips.

The body has to get rid of excess glucose—in a way, dispose of it—because it’s toxic to cells in excess quantities. If your glycogen is already topped off (because you’ve eaten a lot of carbs, or you simply never use it up by moving around), so you don’t have room to store more glucose in the form of starch in your body, the sugar can be oxidized (burned as fuel) by skeletal muscle cells for energy. Or, the body can store the glucose as fat in the liver or adipose tissue (other fat depots in the body).

3.2 Glucose Is Energy Fuel, but Not by the Ton

If you cannot store or burn up the glucose you’ve consumed, you may have the beginnings of high fasting glucose, or excess sugars dissolved in your plasma or blood. This is why the typical doc’s office annual visit involves a test for fasting glucose, to determine if you’re metabolically handling sugar and associated hormones (e.g., insulin and leptin) okay.


You can keep your blood-sugar metabolism out of the prediabetic range (measured by some medical associations or countries’ standards as a persistent fasting glucose level of 100 or more) by keeping your calorie and carb consumption within bounds—i.e., in line with your total energy expenditure. Intermittent fasting helps lower your fasting glucose levels .

The hepatic portal vein, a conduit of blood and nutrients to the liver, takes fructose, a simple sugar that is part of sucrose, to the liver to be metabolized and detoxified .

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