Lactose is an important component of milk and dairy products, as well as a primary source of energy for newborns and young children. However, it is the subject of much controversy today. Why the discrepancy? Read on!

Lactose – what is it?

Lactose, also called milk sugar, is an organic compound belonging to the disaccharide group, present in all dairy products without exception. In the body, lactose is broken down into simple sugars: glucose and galactose. Like any other sugar, it is a source of easily digestible energy, provided the body can digest it, which is not at all so obvious.

The thing is that the human body does not assimilate lactose directly. It needs lactase – an enzyme produced in the intestinal villi – to do so. Lactase breaks down lactose into glucose and galactose, which are easily absorbed intestinally. The activity of this enzyme depends on the work of the gene that is responsible for its synthesis.

Lactase is found in small amounts in many products, for example, turnips, cabbage and even almonds. Relatively recently, when store shelves were not bending under the weight of imported food, turnips and cabbage often graced our tables. Could the fact that they fell into disfavor have influenced the – shall we say – epidemic of lactose intolerance? Although there is no research on the subject, such a correlation is entirely possible.

Lactose – benefits

What are the benefits of consuming lactose? It is a high-energy component of the diet, which clearly strengthens the body’s immunity and prevents heart disease. Lactose has long been attributed to beneficial effects on the health of the nervous system, hence the recommendation to drink one glass of warm milk before bedtime for insomnia. Lactose affects calcium absorption and helps the intestines absorb vitamins B and C. Experts believe that dairy products are beneficial to health, provided that a person does not suffer from lactose intolerance. 

Lactose – harmfulness

Common today, milk intolerance has to do with insufficient secretion of lactase, which stops breaking down lactose into simple sugars. Undegraded lactose is not absorbed by the body, which can cause a number of health problems. Unabsorbed in the small intestine, lactose reaches the large intestine, where it ferments, causing diarrhea, painful bloating and gas. Undigested and accumulated in the intestines, lactose is also a breeding ground for pathogenic bacteria. In some cases, the intestinal walls assimilate lactose too quickly, resulting in the release of toxins that can cause poisoning of the body – in terms of symptoms, this resembles a food allergy.

Lactose – where does it occur?

With the development of the food industry, lactose began to be widely used in the production of many foods. So expect it not only in dairy products, but also in chocolate, caramel, ice cream, semolina and various sweet baked goods. All the products listed are high in lactose, unless the manufacturer has indicated otherwise on the label. 

Lactose – to limit or not?

It is impossible to answer this question unequivocally. Although lactose is a sugar, it does not cause weight gain and satisfies hunger well. There are diets based on dairy products, which aim to strengthen the immune system, cleanse the body and get rid of excess weight. Indications for implementing a lactose-free diet are undoubtedly intestinal problems associated with its consumption. Therefore, before you give it up, consider whether you are succumbing to fashion and carefully observe your body.

main photo: unsplash.com/Nikolai Chernichenko

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