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  • Food plays an extremely important part in the lives of all humans. After ingestion, the food is mechanically broken down into smaller pieces and then chemically digested through the action of enzymes.

    The products of this digestion process are then absorbed into the bloodstream and transported to the liver for further processing. Remaining undigested material is then passed on to the large intestine where some of it undergoes bacterial fermentation. Explore fermentation further with your students in with this activity.

    Any remaining waste material is passed on and prepared for elimination from the digestive system.

    New Zealand research

    Research into foods and food chemistry is very much market driven, and with its strong agricultural and horticultural base, New Zealand is playing a leading role in some aspects of this. It is important that students be informed of this and given insight into some of the research programmes currently operating in the food innovation field. We feature two scientists from Plant & Food Research: Dr John Ingram’s work on ‘satiety’ and Dr Juliet Ansell’s work on ‘gut health’.

    The GI tract

    The human digestive system, also known as the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, consists of a long muscular tube and several accessory organs such as the salivary glands, pancreas and gall bladder. It is responsible for food ingestion and digestion, absorption of digestion products and the elimination of undigested materials.

    We look at the main structural features of the GI tract and the role they play in the digestive process.

    The article Food’s journey through the digestive system looks at the time it takes for food to pass through the gut from mouth to anus.


    Digestion of food involves both mechanical and chemical processes. Through digestion, large food particles are converted into smaller components that can be readily absorbed into the bloodstream.

    We look at mechanical digestion and the chemical digestion (enzymatic hydrolysis) of carbohydrates, proteins and fats.

    Rate of digestion

    Digestion of food involves chemical reactions that break up large food molecules into their ‘building block’ components. There are a number of factors that affect the rates of these reactions.

    The article, Rate of digestion, looks at how surface area, temperature and pH all influence the rate of digestion of large food molecules. The action of salivary amylase on starch is used as an example.

    Large intestine function

    Recent research has revealed that the large intestine and its resident bacterial population have key roles to play in determining our health and wellbeing. It is much more than just a waste storage facility.

    We look at the structure of the large intestine and the four main functions it performs.

    Unlocking the energy in foods

    The foods we eat supply the energy needed by the body to drive its complex chemical, mechanical and electrical systems.

    The article, Unlocking the energy in foods, looks at the origin of this energy, how is it locked into food molecules, how is it released and how the energy content of foods can be calculated.

    Energy requirements of the body

    The macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, fats and oils) we consume in our diet help to supply the energy needed by the body to keep it working. The rate of energy release from macronutrients by chemical processes occurring in the body is known as metabolic rate.

    We look at the concept of resting metabolic rate and a simple method of calculating it. In addition, the idea of balancing energy intake from eating food with output through resting metabolism, growth, exercise and digesting food is also considered.

    The activities Calculating RMR and daily energy output and Futures thinking about obesity get students to investigate energy balances and potential impacts on health.

    Other student activities explore the actions of digestive enzymes: lactase (and lactose intolerance), proteolytic enzymes on party jellies and salivary amylase on cooked rice starch.

    Explore some of the main structures of the digestive system with the activity Labelling the human digestive system. It uses the interactive Label the human digestive system.

    Question bank

    The Digestion chemistry – question bank provides a list of questions about our digestion process and its hormonal control and places where their answers can be found. The questions support an inquiry approach.

    Key terms

    For explanations of key concepts, see Digestion chemistry – key terms.

      Published 13 July 2011, Updated 13 January 2023 Referencing Hub articles
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