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How Food Works

How Food Works

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Published by: api-3709951 on Oct 14, 2008
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How Food Works

It is safe to say that one thing you'll do today is eat some food -- food is pretty important to all
animals. If you don't eat, it can cause all sorts of problems: hunger, weakness, starvation...
Food is essential to life.

But whatis food? What's in food that makes it so important? What happens to the food once
you eat it? What is food made of? How does it fuel our bodies? What do words like
"carbohydrates" and "fats" really mean (especially on those "Nutrition Facts" labels you find
on almost everything these days)? What would happen if you ate nothing but marshmallows
for a week? What is a calorie? Why can't we eat grass like a cow does, or wood like a

If you have ever wondered about food and how your body uses it, then read on. In this
edition ofHow StuffWorks, we'll give you all of the information you need to understand what
a hamburger or a banana does to keep your body running every day!

The Basics of Food

Think about some of the things you have eaten today -- maybe cereal,bre ad, milk, juice, ham, cheese, an apple, potatoes... All of these foods (and pretty much any other food that you can think of) contain seven basic components:

Carbohydrates (simple and complex)

Your body's goal is todige st food and use it to keep your body alive. In the following
sections, we will look at each of these basic components to understand what they really do
and why they are so important to your body.

(Note that there might be a few non-food things mixed in with what you eat, especially if you are eating lots of processed foods. Things like artificial colors and chemicalpreservat ives are the most common. Those areadditi ve s, not part of the natural foods.)


You have probably heard of "carbohydrates" and "complex carbohydrates." Carbohydrates provide your body with its basic fuel. Your body thinks about carbohydrates like a car engine thinks about gasoline.

The simplest carbohydrate isglu cose. Glucose, also called "blood sugar" and "dextrose," flows in thebloodstre am so that it is available to everycell in your body. Your cells absorb glucose and convert it into energy to drive the cell. Specifically, a set of chemical reactions on glucose createsAT P (adenosine triphosphate), and a phosphate bond in ATP powers

most of the machinery in any human cell. If you drink a solution of water and glucose, the
glucose passes directly from your digestive system into the bloodstream.
The word "carbohydrate" comes from the fact that glucose is made up of carbon and water.
The chemical formula for glucose is:

You can see that glucose is made of six carbon atoms (carbo...) and the elements of six
water molecules (...hydrate). Glucose is a simple sugar, meaning that to our tongues it
tastes sweet. There are other simple sugars that you have probably heard of. Fructose is the
main sugar in fruits. Fructose has the same chemical formula as glucose (C6H12O6), but the

atoms are arranged slightly differently. The liver converts fructose to glucose. Sucrose, also

known as "white sugar" or "table sugar," is made of one glucose and one fructose molecule
bonded together. Lactose (the sugar found in milk) is made of one glucose and one
galactose molecule bonded together. Galactose, like fructose, has the same chemical
components as glucose but the atoms are arranged differently. The liver also converts
galactose to glucose. Maltose, the sugar found in malt, is made from two glucose atoms
bonded together.

Glucose, fructose and galactose aremono saccharides and are the only carbohydrates that
can be absorbed into the bloodstream through the intestinal lining. Lactose, sucrose and
maltose aredi saccharides (they contain two monosaccharides) and are easily converted to
their monosaccharide bases bye nzymes in the digestive tract. Monosaccharides and
disaccharides are called simple carbohydrates. They are also sugars -- they all taste
sweet. They all digest quickly and enter the bloodstream quickly. When you look at a
"Nutrition Facts" label on a food package and see "Sugars" under the "Carbohydrates"
section of the label, these simple sugars are what the label is talking about.

There are also complex carbohydrates, commonly known as "starches." A complex
carbohydrate is made up of chains of glucose molecules.Starc hes are the way plants store
energy -- plants produce glucose and chain the glucose molecules together to form starch.
Most grains (wheat, corn, oats, rice) and things like potatoes and plantains are high in starch.
Your digestive system breaks a complex carbohydrate (starch) back down into its component
glucose molecules so that the glucose can enter your bloodstream. It takes a lot longer to
break down a starch, however. If you drink a can of soda full of sugar, glucose will enter the
bloodstream at a rate of something like 30calor ies per minute. A complex carbohydrate is

digested more slowly, so glucose enters the bloodstream at a rate of only 2 calories per
minute (reference).
You may have heard that eating complex carbohydrates is a good thing, and that eating
sugar is a bad thing. You may even have felt this in your own body. The following quote from
The Yale Guide to Children's Nutrition explains why:

If complex carbohydrates are broken down to monosaccharides in the intestines before
they are absorbed into the bloodstream, why are they better than refined sugar or other
di- or mono-saccharides? To a great extent it has to do with the processes of digestion
and absorption. Simple sugars require little digestion, and when a child eats a sweet
food, such as a candy bar or a can of soda, the glucose level of the blood rises rapidly. In
response, the pancreas secretes a large amount of insulin to keep blood glucose levels
from rising too high. This large insulin response in turn tends to make the blood sugar fall
to levels that are too low 3 to 5 hours after the candy bar or can of soda has been
consumed. This tendency of blood glucose levels to fall may then lead to an adrenaline
surge, which in turn can cause nervousness and irritability... The same roller-coaster ride
of glucose and hormone levels is not experienced after eating complex carbohydrates or
after eating a balanced meal because the digestion and absorption processes are much

If you think about it, this is incredibly interesting because it shows that the foods you eat and
the way you eat them can affect your mood and your temperament. Foods do that by
affecting the levels of differenthormon es in your bloodstream over time.

Another interesting thing about this quote is its mention ofin sulin. It turns out that insulin is
incredibly important to the way the body uses the glucose that foods provide. Thefu nctio ns
of insulinare:
To enable glucose to be transported across cell membranes
To convert glucose into glycogen for storage in the liver andmuscles
To help excess glucose be converted into fat
To prevent protein breakdown for energy
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:

Insulin is a simple protein in which two polypeptide chains of amino acids are joined by
disulfide linkages. Insulin helps transfer glucose into cells so that they can oxidize the
glucose to produce energy for the body. In adipose (fat) tissue, insulin facilitates the
storage of glucose and its conversion to fatty acids. Insulin also slows the breakdown of
fatty acids. In muscle it promotes the uptake of amino acids for making proteins. In the
liver it helps convert glucose into glycogen (the storage carbohydrate of animals) and it
decreases gluconeogenesis (the formation of glucose from noncarbohydrate sources).
The action of insulin is opposed by glucagon, another pancreatic hormone, and by

What you can begin to see from this description is that there are actually lots of different
things happening in your body around glucose. Because glucose is the essential energy
source for your body, your body has many different mechanisms to ensure that the right

level of glucose is flowing in the bloodstream. For example, your body stores glucose in your
liver (as glycogen) and can also convert protein to glucose if necessary. Carbohydrates
provide the energy that cells need to survive.

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