Dietary carbohydrates are a group of chemically defined substances with a range of physical and physiological properties and health benefits. As with other macronutrients, the primary classification of dietary carbohydrate is based on chemistry, that is character of individual monomers, degree of polymerization (DP) and type of linkage (alpha or beta), as agreed at the Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization Expert Consultation in 1997. This divides carbohydrates into three main groups, sugars (DP 1-2), oligosaccharides (short-chain carbohydrates) (DP 3-9) and polysaccharides (DP> or =10). Within this classification, a number of terms are used such as mono- and disaccharides, polyols, oligosaccharides, starch, modified starch, non-starch polysaccharides, total carbohydrate, sugars, etc. While effects of carbohydrates are ultimately related to their primary chemistry, they are modified by their physical properties. These include water solubility, hydration, gel formation, crystalline state, association with other molecules such as protein, lipid and divalent cations and aggregation into complex structures in cell walls and other specialized plant tissues. A classification based on chemistry is essential for a system of measurement, predication of properties and estimation of intakes, but does not allow a simple translation into nutritional effects since each class of carbohydrate has overlapping physiological properties and effects on health. This dichotomy has led to the use of a number of terms to describe carbohydrate in foods, for example intrinsic and extrinsic sugars, prebiotic, resistant starch, dietary fibre, available and unavailable carbohydrate, complex carbohydrate, glycaemic and whole grain. This paper reviews these terms and suggests that some are more useful than others. A clearer understanding of what is meant by any particular word used to describe carbohydrate is essential to progress in translating the growing knowledge of the physiological properties of carbohydrate into public health messages.