This review discusses topical chemical routes and their catalysis for the conversion of cellulose, hexoses, and smaller carbohydrates to lactic acid and other useful α-hydroxy acids. Lactic acid is a top chemical opportunity from carbohydrate biomass as it not only features tremendous potential as a chemical platform molecule; it is also a common building block for commercially employed green solvents and near-commodity bio-plastics. Its current scale fermentative synthesis is sufficient, but it could be considered a bottleneck for a million ton scale breakthrough. Alternative chemical routes are therefore investigated using multifunctional, often heterogeneous, catalysis. Rather than summarizing yields and conditions, this review attempts to guide the reader through the complex reaction networks encountered when synthetic lactates from carbohydrate biomass are targeted. Detailed inspection of the cascade of reactions emphasizes the need for a selective retro-aldol activity in the catalyst. Recently unveiled catalytic routes towards other promising α-hydroxy acids such as glycolic acid, and vinyl and furyl glycolic acids are highlighted as well.