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Alternate Names

  • starches
  • sugars


Carbohydrates are compounds made up of sugars. They come from the starchy part of plant foods. They easily convert to sugar in the body. For this reason, carbohydrates are considered fast fuel.

What food source is the nutrient found in?

Carbohydrates are found in various foods:
  • 1 medium carrot = 7 g
  • 1 cup skim milk = 12 g
  • 1 slice whole wheat bread = 16 g
  • 1 cup oatmeal = 25 g
  • 1 ounce licorice candy = 26 g
  • 1 medium boiled potato = 27 g
  • 1 cup orange juice, from concentrate = 27 g
  • 1 large apple = 32 g
  • 1 cup raisin bran = 42 g
  • 1 cup cranberry-apple juice = 43 g
  • 1 cup brown rice = 45 g
  • 3 ounce sirloin steak = 0 grams (g)
Carbohydrates are found in many foods in the food guide pyramid. They provide over half the calories of a balanced diet.
Carbohydrates can be found in the breads, cereals, and grains group in the pyramid. They are also found in the fruit group, the vegetable group, and the milk, yogurt, and cheese groups. In fact, carbohydrates are abundant in all the groups of the food guide pyramidthe meat and meat substitutes group.

How does the nutrient affect the body?

The main role of carbohydrates is to provide energy to the body. Carbohydrates are broken down into a form of sugar known as glucose. Glucose is carried to every cell in the body by the blood and can be used right away for energy.
Glucose can be combined into larger sugar units called glycogen, which is a storage form of glucose. A certain amount of glycogen is stored in the liver. It serves as an energy reserve until it's needed by the body. To a lesser degree, glycogen is stored in muscles. It is a key fuel source for the muscles, especially during exercise.


In general, we can think of carbohydrates as either simple or complex.
Simple carbohydrates refer to a single sugar molecule or two sugars linked together.
Complex carbohydrates are long chains of sugars linked together.
Simple carbohydrates include the following:
  • fructose, which is the sugar found in fruits
  • galactose
  • glucose
  • lactose, the sugar found in milk
  • maltose
  • sucrose, which is common table sugar
People who live in developed nations generally eat and drink too many simple carbohydrates. A rise in childhood obesity in these countries is linked, in part, to this high sugar intake.
Complex carbohydrates are the basis of a healthy balanced diet. Some good sources of complex carbohydrates are:
  • whole grains, including oats, rice, and wheat
  • foods made from whole grains, such as bread, cereal, and pasta
  • legumes, including dried peas and beans
  • vegetables, such as potatoes, peas, and corn
Grains are divided into 2 subgroups, whole grains and refined grains.
Whole grains contain the entire grain kernel - the bran, germ, and endosperm. Examples include:
  • whole-wheat flour
  • bulgur (cracked wheat)
  • oatmeal
  • whole cornmeal
  • brown rice
Refined grains have been milled, a process that removes the bran and germ. This is done to give grains a finer texture and improve their shelf life, but it also removes much dietary fiber, iron, and many B vitamins. Some examples of refined grain products are:
  • white flour
  • degermed cornmeal
  • most white bread
  • white rice
Most refined grains are enriched. This means certain B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid) and iron are added back after processing. Fiber is not added back to enriched grains. Check the ingredient list on refined grain products to make sure that the word "enriched" is included in the grain name. Some food products are made from mixtures of whole grains and refined grains.
Foods containing simple carbohydrates have a high level of calories with a low level of nutrients. This means you can get calories without needed nutrition. In addition, simple carbohydrates trigger body mechanisms that lead to fat accumulation of unused calories.
Complex carbohydrates are processed slower by the body and tend to decrease the amount of fat accumulation

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