5 Ways to Make Carbohydrates Structure and Digestion a Student-Friendly Topic

Sana Shujat

Most people know carbohydrates as "carbs" or "sugars," which help regulate body weight and maintain a healthy diet. Many students would be surprised to learn that carbohydrates include other molecules like starch, cellulose, and fibers. 

Plant utilize carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight to make carbohydrates. Contrary to this, we cannot directly synthesize carbohydrates and fulfill our carbohydrate needs through food. Carbohydrates are present in various food items, including but not limited to fruits, vegetables, pulses, cereals, etc. 

Carbohydrates are macromolecules that are physically and chemically digested by a series of steps to form glucose. This glucose plays a vital role in cellular respiration, releasing ATP, which gives us the energy to do everyday activities. 

Each type of carbohydrate has a distinct molecular structure and mechanism of digestion. This makes students nervous, but no need to worry; we've curated five ways to make carbohydrates a more approachable topic.

carbs stock photo

Foods rich in carbohydrates (Image Source)

Why carbohydrates could be tricky

The structure and digestion of carbohydrates could be tricky for teachers to teach and students to understand for the following reasons.

1. It feels abstract

We cannot see sugars, starch, or fibers lying on our plates next to meals. Therefore, it feels abstract to think we are consuming carbs instead of pasta. Luckily, we've got a solution to this problem. Calculating how different foods carry specific amounts of carbs that impact our blood sugar level is also one of our learning objectives. Such self-tests make students excited about the topic.

2. It's complicated 

The carbohydrates are divided into monosaccharides, disaccharides, and polysaccharides. Changing the position of one carbon/hydrogen/oxygen atom dramatically changes the structure and properties of carbohydrate molecules. It complicates the learning process. The amount of carbs in each food item is different, making it challenging to remember. However, packaged food mentions the percentage of nutrients, making it easy to calculate your carb intake. 

3. It's content-heavy

The process of carbohydrate digestion starts in the mouth, where salivary glands do their job. The partially digested food is passed down from the stomach to the small intestine, where most reabsorption occurs and glucose is released into the bloodstream. We cannot directly utilize this glucose as an energy source; instead, this glucose help generates ATP, known as the cell's energy currency. 

Did you know starch (also a carbohydrate) has its way of digestion? The amylase enzyme breaks the starch into smaller molecules, i.e., maltose, further broken down by another enzyme (maltase) to yield two glucose molecules. Likewise, fructose (primarily in fruits) has a unique digestion mechanism in the blood. Students are most likely to get dazed when you tell them that the story of chemical digestion is exclusive to every carbohydrate. Let's discuss a few ways to make this topic exciting and likable for students. 

5 ways to make carbohydrates a more approachable topic

We already discussed a few points that make learning carbohydrates a tricky business. Now let's find five ways to turn the tables and make carbohydrates a rather exciting topic.

1. Show the people behind the science

The use of storytelling to humanize the otherwise abstract concept of science is a good way of making things interesting for students. Let them know how the knowledge they're consuming was discovered over time with the tireless efforts of some science geniuses. 

The story of the discovery of carbohydrates goes back to the mid-1800s when German chemist Justus von Liebig discovered that the food we eat gets oxidized inside our body to release energy. He also reported that the fuel for oxidation is carbohydrates and fats rather than carbon and hydrogen (an old popular belief). Claude Bernard, in 1856 made a remarkable discovery by isolating the starchlike substance from the liver of mammals. He named this substance glycogen and discovered that it's the stored form of glucose that conveniently converts back to glucose when needed. 

In 1891, German physiologist Karl von Voit reported that complex carbohydrates like starch could also make glucose or glycogen in mammals. In 1919, Otto Meyerhof said glycogen in working muscles gets converted into lactic acid. Scientists still couldn't figure out the exact mechanism of digestion of carbohydrates, which is a complex process. The 1930s is marked as the most remarkable era for discovering the chemical digestion of carbohydrates. Czech-American biochemists Carl Cori and Gerty Cori discovered the complicated process of conversion of stored glycogen is digested in the body. Fascinated by this discovery, Fritz Lipmann kept researching their work and, a few years later, discovered the process by which carbohydrates convert into energy.

The chemical structure of most carbohydrates was discovered in 1884 by German biochemist Emil Fischer. He was also got awarded with Nobel prize for his contribution to science. Telling a story behind the discovery of carbohydrates and introducing all the men, along with their efforts, motivates students. They readily acknowledge that the topic must be significant as many efforts were made in its discovery. 

2. Relate it to the real world

The glucose inside our blood is not only involved in providing energy; instead, it is significant for many critical processes. Tell students some real-world examples to spark some interest in the topic. 

Do you know the evil behind cramps you get after excessive exercise is also carbohydrates? The glucose is broken down into lactic acid when oxygen levels are low in the blood. The lactic acid accumulated in muscles causes uncomfortable muscle cramps. Many individuals experience lactose intolerance and are unable to enjoy dairy products. This problem is because they cannot digest the lactose (type of carbohydrate), leading to health problems like bloating and diarrhea. 

The pancreas produces insulin which is chiefly responsible for converting excess glucose into its stored form, i.e., glycogen. In diabetes, glucose is accumulated in the blood increasing blood glucose level and causing many health problems. It shows that carbohydrates in our blood must be digested and processed correctly. These examples make students aware of the significance of carbohydrates in the body. 

3. Seeing is believing

The molecular structure of carbohydrates is complex and challenging to understand on paper. Glucose and fructose are composed of five carbons with a slight shift in the functional group, but this little change makes molecular structures completely different.

The visual representations like the GIF below help students to understand how each atom is bonded in every molecule. Such visual aids help teachers to teach otherwise tricky topics with ease. Students also pay close attention as they are intrigued to learn more. 

Picture source: Labster Carbohydrates: the sugars that feed us Virtual Lab simulation.

4. Make it stick with word-play

Visual aids and storytelling are great ways to motivate the learning process, but students must memorize the topic to do well in exams.

Here teachers could help students by using the power of words and their impact on memory. Using rhyming words or understanding the literal meaning of words helps make memorizing easier for students. Teachers could introduce some word plays in their class for effective results. 

  • The carbohydrates are also known as "saccharides," derived from the ancient Greek word "sákkharon," meaning sugar.
  • The carbohydrates are divided into three types depending on the number of sugars. For instance, "monosaccharides" (mono– = "one"; sacchar– = "sweet") include simple sugars like glucose, and fructose.
  • The suffix -ose is found at the end of most monosaccharide names. If the sugar contains an aldehyde group (the functional group with the structure R-CHO), it is called an aldose; if it has a ketone group (the functional group with the structure RC(=O) R′), it is called a ketose.
  • Disaccharides (di– = "two") are composed of two monosaccharides linked together by glycosidic bonds. Some common examples include lactose, maltose, and sucrose. 
  • Similarly, polysaccharide (poly– = "many"), like starch, is composed of many monosaccharides linked together. 

5. Use virtual lab simulations

A virtual laboratory simulation is a great way to teach about carbohydrates. At Labster, we're dedicated to delivering fully interactive advanced laboratory simulations that utilize gamification elements like storytelling and scoring systems inside an immersive and engaging 3D universe.


Check out the Carbohydrates: the sugars that feed us Virtual Lab simulation at Labster. In this simulation, you will find that the effect on the blood glucose level is very different, depending on the food composition. For that reason, you can choose other food items and measure the increase in the blood glucose level of a virtual test subject. It would enable you to determine which foods cause a spike in blood glucose levels.

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