Carbohydrates in foods for infants and young children

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Carbohydrates in foods for infants and young children try to adapt as much as possible to the composition of breast milk. As with the mother, they have the largest share in the composition of dry matter, about 70%. They mostly contain lactose, although maltodextrin is used in certain cases. In the case of infant food, the composition is determined by legal regulations based on the recommendations of EFSA (European Food Safety Authority), which, studying all scientific and medical sources, adopts limit values for carbohydrates and all other ingredients.

Carbohydrates are divided into digestible and indigestible. Digestible carbohydrates are the most important as a source of energy, and only after that comes their role as building blocks or modulators of metabolic processes. The reason for this is the quick and easy digestion of the most abundant carbohydrates and their ability to be transmitted through the bloodstream to all parts of the body.

In infant and young child foods, carbohydrates make up a smaller portion of the energy value (about 40%) than fats, especially in the first 6 months of a baby’s life. After the introduction of supplementation, carbohydrates take the main role as a source of energy, as well as later in the introduction of standard foods in the diet of young children.

Indigestible carbohydrates play a significant role in digestion and the immune system. They are not actually completely indigestible, some of them are broken down in the digestive system by the action of bacteria or intestinal microflora into digestible ingredients. Indigestible carbohydrates play the most important role as food for the intestinal microflora, and are of great importance for the immune system and its development. Indigestible carbohydrates have become an indispensable ingredient in baby and young child food in recent years. We find them under the name HMO (human milk oligosacharides), or oligosaccharides of breast milk. They attracted attention only twenty years ago and have been one of the focuses of research ever since.

Carbohydrates are divided into the following groups according to their chemical composition:

  • monosaccharides
  • disaccharides
  • oligosaccharides
  • polysaccharides

Monosaccharides and disaccharides are commonly referred to as sugars.

The most important for nutrition are:

  • glucose or grape sugar
  • fructose
  • galactose

Glucose is found independently in fruits (mostly grapes) and honey, and is most often taken into the body as part of sucrose (plain crystal sugar) or starch (potatoes, bread, pasta) which are easily digested and immediately release large amounts of glucose. Glucose is the basic sugar that circulates through our body and transfers energy to the cells. Blood glucose levels must be well regulated because the moment the body falls below a certain value, the body stops functioning. It is also very important not to suddenly increase the amount of glucose in the blood by consuming large amounts through the diet, because this is a big burden in healthy people, especially in people who are in various stages of diabetes or diabetes. It is certainly necessary that a portion of carbohydrates in the diet be found in the form of sugars with a low glycemic index that are digested more slowly and allow the body to more easily regulate blood glucose levels.

As building elements are important:

  • ribose
  • deoxyribose

These two sugars are the building blocks of ribonucleic RNA and deoxyribonucleic acid DNA, which are the basic elements of the genetic material of all living organisms.

Disaccharides belong to oligosaccharides, but due to their high representation we can look at them as a separate group. The most important disaccharides are:

  • saccharose
  • lactose
  • maltose

Sucrose is the most common disaccharide in everyday life. We find it in the form of table sugar in shops and households.

Lactose or milk sugar is the most important carbohydrate in mammalian milk, and is obtained by combining glucose and galactose. If the organism does not have the appropriate enzyme for the hydrolysis of a disaccharide, disturbances and difficulties in the digestion of food most often occur. An example is lactose intolerance due to a lack of the enzyme lactase.

Maltose or barley sugar is the result of the fusion of two glucose molecules. Maltose is produced during the germination of barley in the process of starch decomposition and is mostly used in beer production.

Oligosaccharides are sugars composed of two to ten units of monosaccharides. In breast milk, the most important disaccharide is lactose, while in the daily diet, sucrose or ordinary sugar is the most common. This group also has special indigestible oligosaccharides called prebiotics, and more recently labeled as HMO or breast milk oligosaccharides. There are about 200 species in breast milk and they make up to 20% of its dry matter, but unlike most other carbohydrates they do not serve as a source of energy, but serve as food and modulators of the intestinal microflora.

Polysaccharides are composed of a large number of monosaccharide units. Polysaccharides include reserve, carbohydrate substances of plants (starch) and animals (glycogen) and building structures of plants (cellulose).

The two most common groups of polysaccharides are: starch polysaccharides – starch, amylose, inulin, amylopectin, non-starch polysaccharides – cellulose, hydrocolloids, pectins, hemicellulose
Some indigestible polysaccharides have the same effect as breast milk oligosaccharides, ie. They serve as food for the intestinal microflora and modulate digestion and are known as fiber.

The breakdown of carbohydrates in digestion starts already in the mouth and ends in the small intestine. Monosaccharides – fructose, glucose and galactose – can be absorbed from the intestine. Absorbed monosaccharides are transferred by the bloodstream to the liver where they are transferred to the systemic bloodstream.

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