By: Mandeep Kaur *
Milk has long been associated with good health, and it has been widely consumed throughout the world. Milk contains various important nutrients which can offer a range of health benefits among all age groups. This is the reason why milk is one of the most consumed beverages. However, some people are not able to digest milk because of lactose intolerance. If we recall, one of the most memorable moments of our childhood was running behind the ice cream van and yelling “I scream! I scream!” But if your child is not able to digest milk, how would you feel? You would feel as though his childhood has been robbed and not willingly, you would stop bringing milk and milk products to your home. But completely banning lactose/milk products is not a good thing, it is very important to know why lactose is important for you and your family and what all the benefits it can provide.
What is Lactose?
Before we jump on to understand what the benefits of lactose are for you and your family, it is very important to understand what exactly lactose is. Lactose is a disaccharide sugar available in every mammal’s milk. Lactose is composed of two simple sugars – Glucose and Galactose. Because of these sugars, lactose is a healthy sugar. But still some people find it difficult to digest and they develop a condition known as lactose intolerance.
What is Lactose Intolerance?
Lactose intolerance is a condition when the person consuming milk is not capable of producing enough of an enzyme (lactase) to digest milk sugar (lactose). Like other enzymes, lactase also helps in the breakdown of lactose into simple sugars i.e. glucose and galactose.
The person with lactose intolerance may start experiencing certain symptoms after consuming lactose-containing dairy products. They may experience abdominal bloating, pain, nausea, flatulence, and diarrhoea. The lactose intolerance may be classified into three types based on the factors causing the lactase deficiency.
Primary Lactose Intolerance: This is a very common type of lactose intolerance and can be genetically determined. In this case, lactase production decreases very sharply. Thereby a person with this condition can’t digest milk products.
Secondary Lactose Intolerance: This type of lactose intolerance occurs when your small intestine stops producing enough lactase during/after an illness, injury or surgery involving your small intestine. However, the treatment of underlying illness may restore the lactase levels, and this condition may be recovered over a period of time.
Congenital Lactose Intolerance: This is a rare type of lactose intolerance. It is a genetic disorder and it may pass from generation to generation in a pattern of inheritance called auto somal recessive. In this type, the babies are born with lactose intolerance caused by a complete absence of lactase activity.
Why Lactose is Beneficial for You?
Lactose intolerance is a concern for the substantial population but do you think to stop drinking milk or consuming dairy products is the only solution for this? Lactose is a very important component of our diet as it aids the absorption of vitamins and minerals like calcium and phosphorus.
Milk is a rich source of calcium and vitamin D. Dairy itself provides up to two-thirds of dietary calcium that is very critical for good bone health, blood clotting, healthy nerve impulses and heart rhythm. The need for these vitamins is essential for our body and it cannot be fulfilled by the consumption of alternate sources of these vitamins like dark leafy vegetables or vitamin supplements. If people with lactose intolerance started skipping milk and opting other options for these essential vitamins, then after a certain age they would always be at greater risk of osteoporosis. Some examples of the benefits of lactose are given below;
Lactose Serves as a Nutrient: Lactose is used as a nutrient by the intestinal microbiota, if it is not digested in the small intestine. The bacteria produce their own lactase to digest lactose which results in the production of short chain fatty acids and gases. These fatty acids serve as a source of energy for the gut microbiota. The undigested lactose and other milk sugars also contribute to the growth of a health-positive genus of bacteria such as; Bifidobacterium bifidum; and Lactobacilli. Lactose also helps to increase resistance against intestinal infections among infants and children by maintaining healthy intestinal flora.
Lactose is Healthier Sugar among other Sugars: Lactose is being looked at as a negative component of milk, but there are many health benefits associated with it. Lactose contains sugars like galactose that is essential in the production of galactolipids. The galactolipids are vital for healthy brain development, cell communication, and a healthy immune system.
Lactose is a Low-calorie Sweetener: Lactose is a natural low-calorie sweetener. It does not impart any detrimental effects on the body, unlike other low-calorie artificial sweeteners. It is less sweet and gives more energy even if it is consumed in smaller amounts than other granulated sugars. Lactose breaks down very slowly and burns only when the body needs it, which results in less fat conversion compared to other sugars.
Lactose has a Low Glycemic Index: Studies have shown that lactose has less significant metabolic effects when compared to other sugars. Sugars can be compared on how quickly they give rise to blood sugar levels; this measurement is known as the Glycemic Index. This rise results in insulin response and may lead to health problems such as; diabetes; insulin resistance; etc. Glycemic Index number for Lactose is 45 which is much lower than glucose (100). Because lactose has a much lower impact on blood sugar, it is considered as a more beneficial sugar for people with diabetes.
Lactose – Need to Explore More!
All the above-mentioned points prove that lactose has many positive health benefits, such as: lactose’s property of being used as a prebiotic; healthier option as sugar than most other sugars; low-calorie sweetener; etc.
But as of now, not so much attention has been given on the positive side of the lactose and it demands more research. I am certain that after digging deeper into its good part, researchers will find it as an interesting healthy component that helps to support a healthy life!
* Associate Editor, Food Marketing and Technology Magazine
(Sources on Demand)