Dietary carbohydrates are a group of chemically defined substances with a range of physical and physiological properties and health benefits. As with other macronutrients, the primary classification of dietary carbohydrate is based on chemistry, that is character of individual monomers, degree of polymerization (DP) and type of linkage (α or β), as agreed at the Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization Expert Consultation in 1997. This divides carbohydrates into three main groups, sugars (DP 1–2), oligosaccharides (short-chain carbohydrates) (DP 3–9) and polysaccharides (DP⩾10). Within this classification, a number of terms are used such as mono- and disaccharides, polyols, oligosaccharides, starch, modified starch, non-starch polysaccharides, total carbohydrate, sugars, etc. While effects of carbohydrates are ultimately related to their primary chemistry, they are modified by their physical properties. These include water solubility, hydration, gel formation, crystalline state, association with other molecules such as protein, lipid and divalent cations and aggregation into complex structures in cell walls and other specialized plant tissues. A classification based on chemistry is essential for a system of measurement, predication of properties and estimation of intakes, but does not allow a simple translation into nutritional effects since each class of carbohydrate has overlapping physiological properties and effects on health. This dichotomy has led to the use of a number of terms to describe carbohydrate in foods, for example intrinsic and extrinsic sugars, prebiotic, resistant starch, dietary fibre, available and unavailable carbohydrate, complex carbohydrate, glycaemic and whole grain. This paper reviews these terms and suggests that some are more useful than others. A clearer understanding of what is meant by any particular word used to describe carbohydrate is essential to progress in translating the growing knowledge of the physiological properties of carbohydrate into public health messages.
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The authors thank Professor Ingvar Bosaeus, Dr Barbara Burlingame, Professor Jim Mann, Professor Timothy Key, Professor Carolyn Summerbell, Dr Bernard Venn and Dr Martin Wiseman for the valuable comments they provided on the earlier manuscript.
Conflict of interest
During the preparation and peer review of this paper in 2006, the authors and peer reviewers declared the following interests.
Professor John H Cummings: Chairman, Biotherapeutics Committee, Danone; Member, Working Group on Foods with Health Benefits, Danone; funding for research work at the University of Dundee, ORAFTI (2004).
Dr Alison M Stephen: Contract with World Sugar Research Organization on trends in intakes of sugars and sources in the diet (contract is with MRC-Human Nutrition Resource); contracts with Cereal Partners UK on whole-grain intakes in the UK and relationship to adiposity (contract was with MRC-Human Nutrition Resource); Adviser to Audrey Eyton on scientific content on book ‘F2 Diet’; Scientific Advisory Panel of Canadian Sugar Institute (not for profit but funded by sugar industry) (1995–2002).
Professor Ingvar Bosaeus: none declared.
Dr Barbara Burlingame: none declared.
Professor Jim Mann: none declared.
Professor Timothy Key: none declared.
Professor Carolyn Summerbell: none declared.
Dr Bernard Venn: none declared.
Dr Martin Wiseman: none declared.
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Cummings, J., Stephen, A. Carbohydrate terminology and classification. Eur J Clin Nutr 61 (Suppl 1), S5–S18 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.ejcn.1602936
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