Carbohydrates are molecules of various size and shape which are formed from atoms of carbon (chemical symbol “C”) and water molecules (chemical symbol “H2O”). An atom is the single smallest chemical unit of an element. A molecule is the single smallest unnit of a more complex chemical made up of atoms of other elemental chemicals or small groups of atoms that typically stay together in chemical reactions. The name carbohydrate means ‘hydrate of carbon.’
As single molecules carbohydrates are commonly known as sugars and the single molecules of a sugar may be found in nature in a ring form or in a straight chain of carbon atoms that have hydrogen (H) and hydroxyl groups (OH) from the water molecules connected to the string of carbon atoms. As a visual, imagine a diamond ring where the gold band is made up of five to nine atoms of carbon and the diamond is an OH group that kind of points outward.
Individual carbohydrate molecules are called simple sugars or monosaccharides. They are commonly found in the diet as disaccharides, pairs of two monosaccharides, and as long chain polysaccharides in the form of the energy rich starches and the indigestible fiber found in cell walls of plants.
In a fluid environment such as a glass of fruit juice, the individual monosaccharides may be found as a straight chain of linked carbon atoms or as closed rings. The ring form is more stable chemically. A glass of sugar water made with pure glucose would only have ~0.0026% of the glucose molecules in the straight chain formation, the rest would be in some variation of the the ring form.
The juice of the sugar cane gives us sucrose or table sugar, which is made up of two 6 carbon monosaccharides, one molecule of glucose and one of fructose. The disaccharide lactose is better known as milk sugar and is made up of one molecule of galactose and one of glucose.
Mannose and fucose are monosaccharides that are less common in unprocessed foods but are very useful as food additives in mixtures such as ice cream or pudding.
- Fucose is commonly found in brown seaweeds. About forty percent of the dry weight of brown seaweeds is the commercially useful alginate polysaccharides. Alginates are used as food additives to help stabilize mixtures and act as emulsifiers which help keep the mixture well mixed even while the food mixture remains still when sitting for weeks or months in a package on the grocery shelf or kitchen cupboard.
- Mannans are the polysaccharide of mannose. Mannans are found in red algae which is useful for its agar and carrageenan content. They are used as food additives for their gelatinous properties and as thickeners.
- Carrageenan may be a health risk and has been shown to cause inflammation, impaired glucose tolerance and increased insulin resistance in lab animals at levels that might be found in comparable amounts in an average day’s food for a person. An update suggests that in larger quantities or more daily use that carrageenan may be linked to gastrointestinal symptoms or glucose intolerance. 
- Mannans are also the main type of energy storage starch in the seeds of the oil palm trees.
- One variety of the tree species, the ivory nut tree, is also known as ‘vegetable ivory.’ The mannan within the ivory like seeds resembles the overlapping long polysaccharide chains of cellulose, which is the type of fiber more commonly found in plant cell walls.
Other uses of the oil palm: There are two types of oil produced from the seed of oil palm trees. Palm kernel oil is paler in color than the reddish color, beta-carotene rich, palm oil. Palm kernel oil contains a higher percentage of saturated fat than palm oil. It may increase the risk of high blood cholesterol but is an inexpensive cooking oil. Palm kernel oil is also frequently used in the production of soap because some of the saturated fatty acids produce good lather, even in salty sea water. Fibrous seed pulp that is left after oil production is used as animal feed.
- The monosaccharide mannose may be the active factor that gives cranberries a reputation for helping prevent urinary tract infections (UTIs). The monsaccharide mannose is thought to help make the lining of the bladder more resistant to infectious bacteria. More research is needed though to prove health benefits from cranberries or from more concentrated supplemental doses of D-Mannose.
- Update – clinical research with patients with UTI symptoms were found to benefit from the use of D-mannose supplements. Two grams of D-mannose in powder form was given dissolved in a glass of water each day as a preventative. Patients in the D-mannose group were found to have fewer Urinary Tract Infections than the group who received daily low dose antibiotics. The control group of patients who recieved neither D-mannose or antibiotics had the most UTIs during the study (six months). The role mannose has to play in helping protect against UTI causing bacteria is discussed in further detail in the following article: D-Mannose for UTI Prevention Validated in Clinical Trial.  Capsules of cranberry concentrate or extract were found effective for preventing UTIs compared to drinking cranberry juice. 
Glyconutrients are essential for helping protect cell surfaces from infectious agents – so fans of cranberries are probably onto a good thing for more than one reason. Cranberries provide other healthy nutrients such as vitamin C so enjoying them provides the body a variety of helpful nutrients. 
The complex branching that is possible when monosaccharides and disaccharides join together in long chains is an essential part of our immune system defense. The surface of cells and bacteria and other microbes all have identifying molecules of complex sugar containing molecules which are used to tell friend from foe – like having a Welcome mat out on the front door or a Please Don’t Disturb sign hanging on the doorknob.
These longer types of molecules and the types of structures they form are discussed in more detail in the post: To Termites, Trees are like giant Sugar Cubes .
Disclaimer: Opinions are my own and the information is provided for educational purposes within the guidelines of fair use. While I am a Registered Dietitian this information is not intended to provide individual health guidance. Please see a health professional for individual health care purposes.
First posted (July 16, 2013), revised 4/18/2017.
- S.A. Brooks, M. V. Dwek, U. Schumacher, Functional and Molecular Glycobiology, (BIOS Scientific Publishers, Ltd., 2002), Amazon.
- “Out of One Many, or How to Use Agar Agar,” (Dec. 17, 2008) by chocolatecoveredKatie.com.
- “Palm Kernel,” Wikipedia (Warning: this Wikipedia entry contains an old war propaganda poster about harvesting palm seeds which may offend some people and for that very reason should never be forgotten.)
- “Palm Kernel Oil,” Wikipedia.
- “Palm Oil,” Wikipedia.
- “D-Mannose Offers Great Protection Against Urinary Tract Infections,” SmartPublications.com.
- “Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of a health claim related to a Uroval® and urinary tract infection pursuant to Article 14 of Regulation,” (EC) No 1924/20061, EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA), European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Parma, Italy
- L. Johnston, “Natural Urinary Tract Health: The D-Mannose Solution,” healingtherapies.info.
- A Weil, “Is Carrageenan Safe?” (Oct. 1, 2012), drweil.com.
- D-Mannose for UTI Prevention Validated in Clinical Trial. http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2014/04/28/d-mannose-uti-prevention.aspx
- Cranberries, Health Benefits, Facts, Research. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/269142.php
- What is Carrageenan? https://wellnessmama.com/2925/what-is-carrageenan/