Although carbohydrates have developed a bad reputation over the years, they are not all the same. They can be placed in different categories depending on their makeup and how they are processed. Refined and complex carbohydrates can’t be compared to one another because they refer to different characteristics. A more accurate comparison could be made between simple and complex carbohydrates, or between refined and unrefined.
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Simple carbohydrates refer to single or double sugar molecules called monosaccharides and disaccharides. They include glucose, fructose and galactose. Because of their chemical structure, these carbohydrates are more easily digested and absorbed. You can find simple carbohydrates naturally in fruit and milk, and they are also found in table sugar.
Complex carbohydrates are made up of chains of sugar molecules, or polysaccharides. Foods that contain complex carbohydrates include beans, whole grain breads and starchy vegetables. These foods tend to be higher in fiber and take longer to digest.
When it comes to refined versus unrefined carbohydrates, the difference lies in how the grains are processed. A wheat kernel is made up of the germ, bran and endosperm. The refining process removes the germ and bran coating, which strips the kernel of most of its vitamins and fiber. What’s left is the refined grain. White rice and white bread are considered refined carbohydrates. A food can be refined but still be made up of complex carbohydrates. White rice still contains the chains of sugar molecules characteristic of complex carbohydrates. Other refined carbohydrates, like candies, sodas and syrups, are considered simple because of their single sugar structure.
When the wheat kernel is left whole, the foods made with this grain are considered unrefined carbohydrates or whole grain foods. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that at least half of your grains be whole grains. The best way to determine if the product you are buying is a whole grain product is to look at the ingredients list. The ingredients will be listed in descending order by weight, and the first one should contain the phrase “whole wheat” or “whole grain.”