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A monosaccharide is a type of sugar that can't be broken down further. It is the simplest of the simple sugars, with just one sugar molecule or saccharide—hence "mono." These sugars are, for the most part, carbohydrates, and they have an interesting role in the body.

Monosaccharides are rapidly absorbed thanks to their uncomplicated structures, so they're often a quick source of energy. But a diet comprising too many simple sugars is comes with a risk for chronic disease. There is a lot to learn about these interesting compounds.

Monosaccharide Formula

Monosaccharides comprise carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. Hydrogen and oxygen make water, which is how carbohydrates get their name. Monosaccharides have the same number of carbon and oxygen atoms and twice as many hydrogen atoms. They are subcategorized depending on the number of carbon atoms, and the number of hydrogen atoms changes accordingly.

For instance, three carbon atoms are present in the monosaccharide triose.

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Common Monosaccharides

Glucose is an important monosaccharide. It's a six-carbon sugar. Galactose forms part of lactose, and it's another oft-discussed monosaccharide. Lactose is the sugar in milk that can cause digestive distress and has led to a spate of lactose-free products for the intolerant.

A third common monosaccharide is fructose, which you may recognize as the sugar in fruit.

White sugar in a ceramic bowl of red clay and in a teaspoon on a wooden table with apples. Zoya2222/ Getty Images

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Monosaccharide Structure

All monosaccharides contain a carbon chain, and each carbon on the chain bonds to an oxygen with a single or double bond. Only one carbon atom has a double bond to the oxygen; the rest all have single bonds. Where the double bond is placed determines whether there's an aldehyde or a ketone. Aldehydes are often toxic in the body, while ketones are the acids your body makes as you break down fats (think ketosis).

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Function of Monosaccharides

Monosaccharide isomers with the same formula but different structures have different biological functions. Organisms use glucose, galactose, and fructose, for example, for energy. Just how much these compounds can vary in their function, though, is clear when you look at xylose, a monosaccharide that combines with xylan to form tree wood.

Another monosaccharide, deoxyribose, puts the D in DNA, the building blocks of life.

Dna is the molecule that carries genetic information for the development and functioning of an organism 3D illustration volkan arslan/ Getty Images

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Monosaccharide Derivatives

Vitamin C is a monosaccharide derivative of glucose. Glucosamine is an amino sugar, and it also derives from glucose. It has the task of producing connective tissue, cartilage, and the chitin that makes up arthropod exoskeletons and fungi cell walls.

Sweeteners can also come from monosaccharides, perhaps unsurprisingly. Mannitol, for instance, is derived from mannose.

Food containing vitamin C. Healthy eating. Top view yulka3ice/ Getty Images

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Misconceptions About Monosaccharides

Disaccharides (like granulated sugar) and polysaccharides are broken down into monosaccharides during digestion. Sugar tastes so good, which is why it's such a big player in the Standard American Diet (SAD), and too much sugar can lead to obesity and other health issues.

However, it's a misconception that you need to, for example, eliminate fructose-containing fruit from your diet when you want to lose weight. Rather, like so many things we eat, we should aim to consume natural sugars in moderation; fats aren't evil, and nor is the humble monosaccharide.

Fresh fruits and berries frame copy space on marble background directly above . leonori/ Getty Images

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Simple Carbs vs. Complex Carbs

You'll hear a lot about simple carbs versus complex carbs in discussions about optimal nutrition. What's the difference? Well, the former refers to monosaccharides and disaccharides with one or two sugar molecules. Complex carbs, on the other hand, have three or more sugar molecules and are considered low GI. They raise blood glucose levels for longer and sustain energy. They're also more nutritious because they tend to be higher in fiber, so they digest more slowly, giving the body time to extract lots of nutrients from its food.

Selection of comptex carbohydrates sources on wood background, copy space a_namenko/ Getty Images

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Industrial Production of Monosaccharides

Inexpensive polysaccharides can produce various hexoses, a type of monosaccharide, for application in the food industry. These hexoses are used in dietary supplements, beverages, and processed foods, for example.

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Vital For Carb Production

Carbohydrates are a macronutrient alongside fat and protein. All carbs are made from monosaccharides, but not all monosaccharides are carbs. Monosaccharides are water-soluble crystalline solids, and their OH group orientation interacts with our sweet taste buds.

Healthy food rich in carbohydrates, photka/ Getty Images

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Brief Summary

Monosaccharides are a foundation for more complex molecules. They can't be broken down further and are thus referred to as simple sugars. Monosaccharides store energy and give shape to much of the natural world. In total, there are nine common monosaccharides, including glucose, fructose, galactose, and ribose.

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Disclaimer

This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.