Fun With Chemistry – Plants, Carbohydrates, and Something Really Special

Maybe you haven’t thought of this before, but virtually all carbohydrates in our diet are from plants –fruits, vegetables, beans, grains. In fact, the only notable exception to the “plant rule” is mother’s milk (including mother cows), where carbohydrate is necessary for a growing infant. This carbohydrate fact makes plants an intimate companion in our diabetes journey.

Plants are essentially made of carbohydratesugar, starch and fiber. Those terms are a loose description of how many carbon atoms are linked together in a “chain” to make a carbohydrate – only a few with sugars, many more with starches, and sometimes many thousands with fiber. These terms are all familiar to us from nutrition labels (or at least should be), and we account for them (or at least should be) when we eat plants because of their potential effect on our blood glucose levels. As a food, we love carbohydrates. With diabetes, we can hate them a little too. Hating carbohydrates is being unfair to ourselves, and really unfair to plants.

For one thing, plants don’t just bring carbohydrates to our diet – plants bring a world of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other “phytonutrients” that are essential to our health, especially when we have diabetes. Diet aside, we build our houses from the fiber (wood) plants produce. And, on a broader scale, we literally owe our existence to plants. You see, plants make their carbohydrates by following this recipe:

  • Take one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide (CO2)
  • Add two hydrogen atoms and another oxygen atom from water (H2O)
  • Sit quietly in the sun and build carbohydrates

This is an extraordinary process, but it is a little wasteful. Carbohydrates are made with multiples of 1 carbon atom, 2 hydrogen atoms and 1 oxygen atom (glucose, for example, is C6-H12-O6). But, if you add up “ingredients” from the carbon dioxide and water you get 1 carbon, 2 hydrogen’s, and 3 oxygen’s. So, in the process of manufacturing carbohydrates to feed us, plants also discharge a waste product that gives us something we need to breathe- a couple of extra oxygen atoms. So enjoy healthy carbohydrates in your diet, breathe deeply, and thank a plant.

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