The most important carbohydrate is glucose, a simple sugar (monosaccharide) that is metabolized by nearly all known organisms. Glucose and other carbohydrates are part of a wide variety of metabolic pathways across species: plants synthesize carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water by photosynthesis storing the absorbed energy internally, often in the form of starch or lipids. Plant components are consumed by animals and fungi, and used as fuel for cellular respiration. Oxidation of one gram of carbohydrate yields approximately 4 kcal of energy, while the oxidation of one gram of lipids yields about 9 kcal. Energy obtained from metabolism (e.g., oxidation of glucose) is usually stored temporarily within cells in the form of ATP.1 Organisms capable of aerobic respiration metabolize glucose and oxygen to release energy with carbon dioxide and water as byproducts.
Carbohydrates can be chemically divided into complex and simple. Simple carbohydrates consist of single or double sugar units (monosaccharides and disaccharides, respectively). Sucrose or table sugar (a disaccharide) is a common example of a simple carbohydrate. Complex carbohydrates contain three or more sugar units linked in a chain, with most containing hundreds to thousands of sugar units. They are digested by enzymes to release the simple sugars. Starch, for example, is a polymer of glucose units and is typically broken down to glucose. Cellulose is also a polymer of glucose but it cannot be digested by most organisms. Some bacteria that produce enzymes for cellulose live inside the gut of some mammals such as cows, and when cows eat plants, the cellulose is broken down by the bacteria and some of it is released into the gut.
Doctors and scientists once believed that eating complex carbohydrates instead of sugars would help maintain lower blood glucose. Numerous studies suggest, however, that both sugars and starches produce an unpredictable range of glycemic and insulinemic responses.2 While some studies support a more rapid absorption of sugars relative to starches3 other studies reveal that many complex carbohydrates such as bread, rice, and potatoes have glycemic indices similar to or higher than simple carbohydrates such as sucrose.4 Sucrose, for example, has a glycemic index lower than expected because the sucrose molecule is half fructose, which has little effect on blood glucose.5 The value of classifying carbohydrates as simple or complex is questionable. The glycemic index is a better predictor of a carbohydrate's effect on blood glucose.6
Carbohydrates are a superior short-term fuel for organisms because they are simpler to metabolize than fats or those amino acids (components of proteins) that can be used for fuel. In animals, the most important carbohydrate is glucose. The concentration of glucose in the blood is used as the main control for the central metabolic hormone, insulin. Starch, and cellulose in a few organisms (e.g., some animals (such as termites7) and some microorganisms (such as protists and bacteria)), both being glucose polymers, are disassembled during digestion and absorbed as glucose. Some simple carbohydrates have their own enzymatic oxidation pathways, as do only a few of the more complex carbohydrates. The disaccharide lactose, for instance, requires the enzyme lactase to be broken into its monosaccharides components; many animals lack this enzyme in adulthood.
Carbohydrates are typically stored as long polymers of glucose molecules with glycosidic bonds for structural support (e.g. chitin, cellulose) or for energy storage (e.g. glycogen, starch). However, the strong affinity of most carbohydrates for water makes storage of large quantities of carbohydrates inefficient due to the large molecular weight of the solvated water-carbohydrate complex. In most organisms, excess carbohydrates are regularly catabolised to form acetyl-CoA, which is a feed stock for the fatty acid synthesis pathway; fatty acids, triglycerides, and other lipids are commonly used for long-term energy storage. The hydrophobic character of lipids makes them a much more compact form of energy storage than hydrophilic carbohydrates. However, animals, including humans, lack the necessary enzymatic machinery and so do not synthesize glucose from lipids, though glycerol can be converted to glucose.8
Oligosaccharides and/or polysaccharides are typically cleaved into smaller monosaccharides by enzymes called glycoside hydrolases. The monosaccharide units then enter monosaccharide catabolism. Organisms vary in the range of monosaccharides they can absorb and use and they can also vary in the range of more complex carbohydrates they are capable of disassembling.
Carbon fixation, or photosynthesis, in which CO2 is reduced to carbohydrate.
The pentose phosphate pathway, which acts in the conversion of hexoses into pentoses and in NADPH regeneration.11 NADPH is an essential antioxidant in cells which prevents oxidative damage and acts as precursor for production of many biomolecules.
The hormoneinsulin is the primary regulatory signal in animals, suggesting that the basic mechanism is very old and very central to animal life. When present, it causes many tissue cells to take up glucose from the circulation, causes some cells to store glucose internally in the form of glycogen, causes some cells to take in and hold lipids, and in many cases controls cellular electrolyte balances and amino acid uptake as well. Its absence turns off glucose uptake into cells, reverses electrolyte adjustments, begins glycogen breakdown and glucose release into the circulation by some cells, begins lipid release from lipid storage cells, etc. The level of circulatory glucose (known informally as "blood sugar") is the most important signal to the insulin-producing cells. Because the level of circulatory glucose is largely determined by the intake of dietary carbohydrates, diet controls major aspects of metabolism via insulin. In humans, insulin is made by beta cells in the pancreas, fat is stored in adipose tissue cells, and glycogen is both stored and released as needed by liver cells. Regardless of insulin levels, no glucose is released to the blood from internal glycogen stores from muscle cells.
The hormone glucagon, on the other hand, has an effect opposite to that of insulin, forcing the conversion of glycogen in liver cells to glucose, which is then released into the blood. Muscle cells, however, lack the ability to export glucose into the blood. The release of glucagon is precipitated by low levels of blood glucose. Other hormones, notably growth hormone, cortisol, and certain catecholamines (such as epinepherine) have glucoregulatory actions similar to glucagon.
^Blaack, EE; Saris, WHM (1995). "Health Aspects of Various Digestible Carbohydrates". Nutritional Research15 (10): 1547-73.
^Wolever, Thomas M. S. (2006), The Glycaemic Index: A Physiological Classification of Dietary Carbohydrate, CABI, pg. 65, ISBN 9781845930516. “Indeed, blood glucose responses elicited by pure sugars and fruits suggest rapid absorption because the blood glucose concentration rises more quickly and falls more rapidly than after bread (Wolever et al., 1993; Lee and Wolever, 1998). Further evidence that sugars are rapidly absorbed is provided by recent studies indicating that the switch from oxidation of fat to carbohydrate occurs more rapidly after a high-sucrose meal than a high-starch meal, with the increase in carbohydrate oxidation being sustained for longer after the starch than the sucrose meal (Daly et al., 2000).”
^Jenkins, DJ; Jenkins, AL; Wolever, TM; Josse, RG; Wong, GS (1984). "The glycaemic response to carbohydrate foods". The Lancet324: 388–391. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(84)90554-3.