Scientists Say: Carbohydrate

These molecules are found in food and pack an energetic punch

a top-down photo of grains, fruit, bread and beans on a table


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Carbohydrate (noun, “CAR-boh-HI-drayt”)

This is a chemical compound made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Most carbohydrates have the same oxygen to hydrogen ratio as water. That’s two hydrogens for every oxygen.

Another word for a carbohydrate is saccharide. If saccharide reminds you of sugar, it’s because sugars are saccharides. More complex carbohydrates are known as starches. Sugars and starches are found in fruits, bread, potatoes and vegetables. Carbohydrates also make up the cellulose that builds cell walls.

Plants make carbohydrates inside their leaves and stems. This is a way for plants to store energy from the sun. When animals — including humans — eat plants, their bodies break down the bonds in these molecules to get energy. Carbohydrates are one of the main sources of energy from the food we eat.

In a sentence

Instead of waking them up, a carbohydrate-loaded meal makes mice sleepy.

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Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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