Refined Carbohydrates

What Are Refined Carbohydrates?

white bread
Examples of refined carbohydrates are white flour, white rice, almost any source of added sugars, and processed foods such as breakfast cereals. Adam Gault/OJO Images/Getty Images

Definition: Refined carbohydrates are produced when whole plants which are high in carbohydrates are processed in a way to strip out everything but the highly-digestible carbohydrate (starch or sugar). This has the effect of concentrating the carbohydrate and/or breaking it down so that the body digests it very quickly, generally causing a high rise in blood sugar (glycemic response). Producing refined carbohydrate usually, removes the fiber and much of the nutrient value of the plant.

Note: Although "refined carbohydrate" is a popular term, it is more accurate to use terms such as "refined grains" and "refined sugars". This shows the substance for what it is: a whole food that has been taken apart (at least to some extent), and not just the carbohydrate in it. I realize this seems picky, but I do think that calling foods by the name of a macronutrient has caused some confusion (e.g. calling spinach "a carb", which is very misleading).

Sugar (or, to be more precise, added sugar) is always a refined carbohydrate unless you are chewing on a stalk of sugar cane or gnawing on a sugar beet. There are a great many ingredients that are essentially added sugars, from agave nectar to molasses.

What About Products Made With Whole Grains?

Most processed foods (e.g. most foods which come in boxes and bags) are made mainly from refined starches and sugars. Even some which are considered "whole grain" are usually broken down into very small particles, even though they are technically "whole" grains.

This means that even though they retain the nutrients of the original whole grain, they still raise blood sugar much faster than a whole, intact grain such as whole brown rice, barley, quinoa, etc. This is true of many baked goods made with whole wheat flour, and cold cereals which are labeled whole grain.

For example: with some exceptions, store-bought whole wheat bread raises blood sugar just as much as white bread, even though it is more nutritious.​

How to Find a Healthy, Lower-Carb Bread

To sum up, refined carbohydrates include:

  • Anything we call "sugar" including granulated sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or anything on this list.
  • Grains that have been made "white" by stripping the germ and/or bran from the grain. This includes white flour, white rice, white pasta, and couscous.
  • Anything called "starch" - corn starch, modified food starch, etc.
  • Baked goods made from flour (crackers, bread, pastries, cookies, muffins, etc.) or grains that have been turned into flakes, puffs, shreds, etc, rarely are made from whole grains, but in any case, are generally processed to the point where they are very glycemic.

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