Complex carbohydrates are in foods such as bread, cereal, rice, pasta, tortillas, crackers, pretzels, beans, and starchy vegetables (like potatoes, peas, corn, and yams). Because whole pieces of fruit have fiber (unlike fruit juices or fruit juice concentrate sweeteners) they too can be considered complex carbohydrates.
Much of the complex carbohydrate Americans consume comes from refined and processed products (such as white breads, white rice, white pasta, and white instant potatoes or French fries). The refinement of these foods takes away many of their nutrients and fiber and leaves just a white starchy final product. These foods are “enriched,” but only with five nutrients (four B vitamins and iron). All the other nutrients are forever lost.
Foods in their whole form (such as whole wheat bread, brown rice, oats, and whole grain cereals) retain all of their nutrients and fiber.
See the table below for a more complete listing of simple vs. complex carbohydrates.
Simple Carbohydrate (sugar)
Complex Carbohydrate (starch)
Added sugars (added to sodas, breakfast cereals, baked goods, frozen desserts, candies, and other sweets)
- White table sugar (100% sucrose)
(syrup left over from refining sucrose from sugar cane)
- Brown sugar (white sugar with molasses added)
(concentrated solution of fructose and glucose)
- High fructose corn syrup
(fructose, glucose, and maltose)
- Concentrated fruit juice sweetener
(concentrated syrup of dehydrated fruit juice)
Naturally occurring sugars (found in fruits, vegetables, and milk)
- Fruit sugar (fructose)
- Milk sugar (lactose)
Refined, processed foods (low fiber)
-“Enriched wheat flour” breads and cereals
- White rice
- White pasta
- Instant potatoes and French fried potatoes
Whole foods (high fiber)
-“Whole wheat or grain” breads and cereals
- Brown and wild rice
- Whole wheat pasta
- Beans and peas
- Whole vegetables
- Whole pieces of fruit