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Hidden Carbohydrates

Where did those carbs come from?
Where did those carbs come from?

There's something strange about the nutrition label on a box of white rice. But before I tell you about what's odd, you need to know a couple of simple things about carbohydrates.

First, both sugar and fiber are carbohydrates. On a typical nutrition label, the total carbohydrate number is a combination of the sugar and fiber. For example, if there are three grams of fiber per serving and two grams of sugar per serving, the total carbohydrates will show five.

Second, sugar alcohols are a form of sweetener that doesn't breakdown as rapidly or easily as sugar and they are also considered carbs. If a product has sugar alcohols, those too will make up the total carbohydrates.

So sugar is a carb, fiber is a carb and sugar alcohols are a carb. Got it?

Now back to that box of white rice. It says there is no sugar, no fiber and no sugar alcohols in a serving. They're all zero. However, it also says there are 43 grams of carbohydrates per serving. The question is, where do those carbs come from?

The answer is, starch. Starch is a form of complex carbohydrate. It's broken down in the gut, turned into glucose and absorbed as energy. However, on a food label, only monosaccharides (single molecules of sugar) and disaccharides (two molecules of sugar bound together) must be listed.

Since starch is composed of three or more sugar molecules weakly bound together, it doesn't have to be broken out on a food label, merely included in the carbohydrate total.

The most common places to find starches are in foods like rice, wheat, maize and root vegetables like potatoes and cassava. They're also in many beans like chickpeas, favas, lentils, mung beans and peas. Processed foods that commonly hold starch include breads, cereals, noodles, pancakes, pasta, porridge and tortillas.

Starches can be divided into two distinct groups, amylopectin and amylose. The most common form, amylopectin typically makes up 75 to 80% of the starch found in plants. It is more easily digested and can raise blood sugar quicker, posing a problem for diabetics. Amylose is more difficult to digest, so we absorb it slower and it's less likely to spike blood sugar levels. Amylose typically makes up 20 to 25% of the starch found in plants.

Rice that has a lot of the quick digesting amylopectin is more "sticky" and is used in creamy risottos and to make sushi. If you want to avoid that sugar spike, choose longer grained rice and rice that doesn't clump together as much.

Another option is to choose foods higher in "resistant" starch. That's a starch that digests so slowly, it passes through the small intestine without being digested. It "resists" digestion. Here's how it works.

When you eat a resistant starch, it's bulky and takes up space in your digestive system, this makes you feel full. Because your small intestine doesn't absorb or digest it, your body doesn't turn the excess you eat into fat. As it enters the large intestine your body ferments it. One of the byproducts of resistant starch fermentation is the creation of a fatty acid called butyrate, which blocks the body's ability to burn carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are the body's preferred source of fuel. So when butyrate blocks your ability to burn carbs, your body looks for fat to burn instead.

A study at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center found that replacing just 5.4% of daily carb intake with resistant starch increases fat burning by an astonishing 23%.

A few of the foods that have resistant starch in them include barley, whole grains, brown rice, beans and legumes cooked intact. You can also find it in slightly green bananas, plantains, high-amylose corn and raw potatoes.

Eating foods with resistant starch, high fiber and more amylose are all healthy choices. Don't simply reject something because it's higher in carbs, until you look at the overall composition of the food.

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