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Medicine LibreTexts

4.1: Introduction to Carbohydrates

You likely eat grains every day—cereal, a sandwich, pasta, or your favorite rice dish. Whole grains are vital to a healthful diet. In addition to fiber, whole grains offer other slow-releasing carbohydrates, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, all of which are needed for good health. Maybe you are on a diet and have been told to limit or restrict your carbohydrate intake. How much is too much and which carbohydrates are better for you? Can you promote a healthy weight with a balanced intake of whole grains? Before we answer these questions, let’s examine in brief the history of grain.

Video 4.1

Watch the History of Bread, part one, from The History Channel. To further satiate your interest go on to watch the other five parts, available on YouTube.

In ancient times whole grains were cracked open using quern stones that required hours of hand labor. As technology slowly advanced, the quern stone was modified into the millstone. It wasn’t until the advent of water wheels that human labor to produce grains was reduced. About 2,500 years ago the Romans started milling flour by turning one millstone wheel against another that did not move. The turning was done by animals, slaves, and later by waterwheels. The process of milling breaks the hard outer bran coat of the wheat seeds. The bran and germ, which contain the majority of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, are removed by sifting. In the earliest days, the whitest flour was chosen to make bread for the wealthy, and the coarsest was given to the poor. One’s economic status was depicted by the color of bread they ate. Wheat was the grain of choice for many cultures, as it not only produced white flour but also contained gluten which gives wheat bread its elasticity and lightness in texture. The word “flour” comes from a French word meaning “blossom” and is metaphoric for the finest part of the meal. Bakers highly prized their art and it was kept from the masses. In fact the baker’s mark was one of the first trademarks.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommend that half of all grains in your diet come from whole grains. What percentage of your diet is whole grain? © Thinkstock

In America, Oliver Evans built the first flour mill, which was powered by a watermill. It used a series of elevators that moved grain through the mill, cleaning it first, then grinding and sifting it. Today, modern milling produces three types of flour; whole meal containing 100 percent of the grain, with nothing added or removed; brown flour, containing 85 percent of the original grain with some bran and germ and white flour, containing 75 percent of the wheat grain with the most bran and germ removed. The vast majority of flour milled and used in foods and cooking in America is white flour. The modern milling process of preparing white flour removes between 50 and 85 percent of B vitamins, vitamin E, calcium, iron, potassium, chromium, phosphorus, zinc, magnesium manganese, and cobalt.

Wheat kernel anatomy and composition.

In the early nineteenth century several diseases stemming from vitamin and mineral deficiencies, such as pellagra (niacin, B3), beriberi (thiamine, B1), and anemia (iron), plagued many inhabitants of the nation. One of the first public health campaigns was to improve the health of Americans by enriching flour, a dietary staple. The B vitamins, niacin, thiamine, riboflavin, and folate were added along with iron to combat dietary deficiencies and proved a successful strategy to improve public health. However, enriched flour contains only 6 percent or less of the recommended daily intake of the vitamins and minerals it “replaces.” Overwhelming scientific evidence now shows that diets containing high amounts of whole grains rather than refined white flour decrease weight gain and the risk for many chronic diseases, including certain types of cancer and diabetes. Whole grains contain a whole nutrient package that is not replaced by enriched flour. Consumers are becoming more aware of the many health benefits of whole grains. However, the food industry has created a puzzle for consumers in determining if a product is made from 100 percent whole grains. “Whole wheat” does not always mean the product is made with 100 percent whole grains, and brown breads are not always healthier than white as the color may come from added caramel. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has provided the food industry with specifics on how to label whole-grain foods—to label it as made from 100 percent whole grains. The best method to ensure the product is made from 100 percent whole grains is to check the ingredient list. One-hundred percent whole-grain products list whole grains or whole-wheat flour most often as the first ingredient and do not contain wheat flour, white flour, yellow corn flour, semolina flour, degerminated flour, or durum flour. In America, whole-grain choices are improving, but progress still needs to be made on reducing the added sugar content of many industrially prepared breads, assuring added fiber comes from good sources, eliminating ambiguous labels and claims on packaging, and reducing the costs of whole-grain breads, which still exceed that of white bread.

You Decide

What 100 percent whole-grain products can you include in your diet to improve health, prevent disease, and be tastefully satisfied?

As you read on, you will learn the different types of carbohydrates, their essential roles in the body, the potential health consequences and benefits of diets rich in particular carbohydrates, and the many foods available that are rich in carbohydrates as well as nutritious and satisfying. After reading this chapter, you will be better equipped to decide the best way to get your nutritional punch from various carbohydrates in your diet.

“If thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars and all the heavens.”

Robert Browning, English poet and playwright (May 1812–December 1889)