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Friday, March 22, 2013


Quite trendy among the orthorexic folks is the concept that dietary carbohydrates should be reduced or eliminated. I've heard preposterous claims that carbohydrates directly cause cancer; some practices advocate not just the reduction of "carbs", but the complete elimination from the diet - which, of course, is followed by a meat-heavy (if not exclusive) regimen.
Do you know what carbohydrates are?
Sardines, seaweed salad, and fried pork belly. It's "no carb". Not really.

Carbohydrates are chemicals.

Ok, being facetious aside, carbohydrates are molecules made from just carbon, hydrogen and oxygen - and that comprises a huge range of compounds. Take for example, cellulose, the stuff that is the primary component of wood and paper: it's a carbohydrate. But it isn't a dietary carbohydrate

Dietary carbohydrates stem from three basic simple units: glucose, fructose and galactose. These all have the same basic composition, but are isomers of each other - meaning that the main difference is how the individual atoms are arranged in these simple carbohydrates. The fun thing is that these can then be hooked up in combinations like interlocking bricks, to become more complex carbohydrates. Sucrose (table sugar) is made up of a fructose and glucose (which is, of course, very similar to high fructose corn syrup). Lactose is a glucose and a galactose.
But you can go way beyond two. In organismic biology, the simple carbohydrate glucose is a direct feed into the energy production of the cells. Plants, in particular, make these very long chains to store their glucose - and these are the starches. If you can imagine the variety of ways six carbons can be arranged to make molecules of many different properties, when hundreds are arranged in these long chain carbohydrates, you get things with different properties - hence the variety of cooking starches available. Which is why wheat starch is different from potato starch, and how glutinous rice starch is different from long grain rice starch.

Now, there are people who are even stricter than low carbing — they go for the "no carb" diet, avoiding even fruits and vegetables that may provide a hint of sugar or starch. And they tend to eat meat-heavy diets. Well, this is where that incorrect use of the word "protein" comes into play. It's become commonplace to hear cooks call a piece of meat, fish, poultry, or tofu "the protein" of the dish, when in scientific parlance, protein means a very specific chemical situation. And meat, despite this practice, actually contains carbohydrates.

Animals store glucose subunits, too, in the form of glycogen. In a sense, you can think of glycogen as "animal starch". And depending on the cut of meat, it can be a rich source of glycogen (liver, in particular). In fact, I propose the most expensive sweetener in the world, just out of ridiculousness: extract glycogen from foie gras and oysters, break it down into glucose, convert a little over half of it with isomerase into fructose - and voila: High fructose oyster and foie gras syrup (HFOFGS).

And absolutely not vegan.

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