The Milky Way Of Lactose
What is lactose and how does it affect the body
I lack the enzymes
To properly digest lactose
I can’t drink cow’s milk
I can’t drink milk from a goat
Yogurt, cottage cheese
Make me throw up
Please no cream in my cup
Cyndi Lauper, the author of this song, is not the only celebrity who feels unexcited about lactose. The Princess Diaries star Anne Hathaway, American songwriter Lionel Richie and singer Cardi B are also familiar with stomach cramps, nausea and bloating caused by this carbohydrate. “It’s just not working out…diarrhea for three days…straight,” says Cardi B to Us magazine. Sadly, no dates in ice-cream shops, no warm milk for a good night’s sleep and no cheesy pizzas for these lactose-intolerant celebrities!
If you’ve never experienced anything they are complaining about, you might say: “Forget lactose - just take milk!” But the thing is, there’s no true milk without lactose. This is a compound of animal origin that lives in mammal’s milk and makes the milk sweet. That is why lactose is commonly called “milk sugar”.
By contrast, other celebrities don’t shy away from expressing their love towards lactose. “My milkshake my cheat day,” says TV personality Ryan Seacrest while drinking his chocolate beverage with multiple straws. And there’s no better indulgence than cheese in all its forms for actress Anna Faris. “I love pizza. I love pasta. I love great cheese. Cheesecake and ice cream,” she says in the interview for PEOPLE Magazine.
As you can see, lactose never suffers from a lack of attention. For what it’s worth, the benefits of milk sugar are impressive. While giving our bodies an instant boost of energy, lactose helps absorb calcium, zinc and copper optimizes the bone growth and encourages the brain and immune system work properly. Lactose is an enduring source of a smaller carbohydrate called glucose, which is stored in muscles to be used as a fuel, especially during intense workouts. Therefore, it plays an important part in an athletes’ diet, helping them to recover after exercising and get ready for the next activity. Sportsmen, who don’t eat enough carbohydrates, often experience fatigue and muscle soreness.
And who could deny the beauty of its physicochemical characteristics? Its bland taste and low hygroscopicity make lactose a great filler and diluent for pills, capsules and infant formulas. Its ability to carry flavors and colors offers unique opportunities to confectioners: they often add lactose to toppings, frostings and fruit pies to increase the total solids and enhance the flavor. And lactose’s absorptive talent won over the hearts of coffee lovers who admire lactose for giving their favorite beverage a velvety-smooth taste.
Today the world produces several million tons of lactose every year, obtaining it from cow’s milk or as a by-product of whey. Whey is a cloudy liquid composed of water, milk sugar, protein, vitamins, and minerals. It occurs after milk is curdled and strained, for example, during cheesemaking, when a cheesemaker separates the milk into solid curds and liquid whey. While lactose wasn’t commercially recognized until the 1960s, its industrial production didn’t make a significant change from its original method of isolation.
So, how did this all get started? Where did lactose (C₁₂H₂₂O₁₁) come from?
Scientists, who have been tracing the roots of lactose, refer its first appearance to the 16th century. And some relate the very first discovery of lactose to a miracle doctor! His name is Leonhard Thurneysser (1531-1596), and he served at the court of Elector John George of Brandenburg. Thyrneysser was the one who found lactose in whey. At that time, people were not familiar with the interesting properties of this substance. A true enthusiast of experimenting, Thyrneysser wanted to see what happens if he heats it up. He simmered and simmered the liquid in a test tube until the last drop of water evaporated. Thyrnesser looked at the tube: it wasn’t empty. He looked more closely: little crystals showed white inside the tube. Thyrnesser named the crystals “a key salt of milk” and quickly forgot about his discovery. Obsessed with miracle medicine, he probably found a new medicine herb to experiment with or was just too busy dealing with the sudden accusations of quackery.
Consequently, nobody noticed the birth of lactose, and the compound was waiting for its shining hour and recognition, or at least for someone who could rename it. After all, the “salty” name didn’t suit the compound’s sweet nature… Then in 1619, Italian physician Fabrizio Bartoletti (1576–1630) repeated Thurneysser’s experiment and named the crystals “manna”, referring to “manna from heaven” from the Bible. Poetic, but still not sweet…
Over two centuries, adventurously traveling from one tube to another, lactose carried uncertain names, which couldn’t tell about its life mission. Only in 1780 German-Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742-1786) made a sweet breakthrough when he finally identified lactose as sugar. And in 1843 French chemist Jean Baptiste André Dumas (1800–1884) awarded this sugar with the title “lactose”. From Latin “lac” means “milk”, and the suffix -ose is used to name sugars. What can be more accurate for white crystals with a mild sweet taste?
Under the microscope, these crystals look more like small tomahawks rather than candies. And the molecule of lactose (342.2 g/mol) represents two independent sugars. They are galactose and glucose species linked together by an oxygen atom.
Interestingly, these simple sugars have the same formula (C₆H₁₂O₆) and molar mass (180.156 g/mol),- but a slightly different arrangement of atoms. Because of that difference, galactose features a higher melting point, while glucose has a sweeter taste. As both compounds are made of a single sugar molecule, they are called “monosaccharides”. And lactose, which has both sugars in its composition, belongs to the class of disaccharides.
Known as “blood sugar”, glucose delivers fuel to the organs, while galactose optimizes the work of the immune system and brain. However, it takes a lot of effort to lure out these sugars from lactose and make them work for someone’s benefit… Generally, this process requires two components - water and lactase. And you are right, “lactase” is only one letter apart from ‘lactose”! But, unlike galactose and glucose, those are completely different characters. Just take a glance at the chemical portraits of lactose and lactase to see if that’s true.
First of all, lactase is not a sugar - it is a digestive enzyme that is naturally produced by the cells and bacteria in the small intestine. Instructions for making lactase are in our DNA – the LCT gene. If the LCT gene is "on", the enzyme can be produced in the cell. Then the enzyme is free to go on to digest lactose.
How does it happen?
Theoretically, when you drink milk, water encounters lactose and attacks its galactose-glucose bond, adding an oxygen and a hydrogen to the galactose, and a hydrogen to the glucose. The fate of this fight is predictable: milk sugar is separated into two simpler sugars, galactose and glucose.
This reaction is called hydrolysis, which simply means “splitting with water”. But without the assistance of lactase, this reaction would go very slowly, and the human body wouldn’t be able to absorb lactose by the time it reached the large intestine. And to think, almost all human babies have enough lactase in their bodies to break down lactose. In fact, lactose provides about 50 percent of their total energy! As they grow up, the LCT gene becomes less active and often switches off. Then one day, unaware of this change, the adults decide to treat themselves to ice cream or a slice of cheesecake and suddenly experience discomfort… The absence of lactase in their bodies makes lactose build up in their guts, where gut bacteria eats it, producing gas, bloating, stomach pain, diarrhea and other unpleasant symptoms.
Surprisingly, only about 35 percent of adults worldwide can blissfully enjoy milk products, while the rest lose the ability to make lactase and become lactose-intolerant. And something is striking about lactase's geography. Apparently, people in northern Europe and those from some African tribes make a lot of lactase even after they are adults. From surveying different ethnic groups, scientists have been able to link this ability with the fact that those lucky populations had traditionally herded cows and other milk-producing animals!
Since we are on the subject, are all milks the same?
Perhaps the scientists of the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C. can help us to find the answer. This zoo has the largest collection of milk samples in the world. The scientists who study more than 16,000 kinds of milk produced from over 200 species of mammals say that the tubes labeled “hippo”, “gorilla” and “African elephant” might feature a similar color, but they have very different levels of fat, protein, minerals and, of course, lactose. Milk sugar makes up about 1-8 percent of the solids in mammal’s milk. But the fattier the milk, the less lactose is in it. Thus, with 4.2 percent fat, human milk contains 7.2 percent lactose, while hooded seal milk has 61 percent fat and no lactose at all! This contrast shows that different species have different needs to survive in their environments. And the scientists continue their research to discover new ways to save endangered species and also to study how human milk evolved.
So, let’s say you know that milk is one of the best sources of calcium. And its derivatives like yogurt and cheese are good for your bones, muscles, and nerves… However, what if you love milk but cannot stand lactose? After all, lactose-free yogurt doesn’t taste the same… Here’s the good news: lactose intolerance isn’t life-threatening. Unlike a milk allergy, when the body attacks itself once it encounters anything with milk protein, lactose intolerance can be managed. While low-lactose or lactose-free foods are a good option, some diet changes can enable you to keep eating and drinking real dairy! So it’s worth learning which of the foods your body can or cannot tolerate. Lactose obediently dissolves in water but gets stubborn to do the same in fats. Thus, while whole milk might be hard to digest, a piece of cheese to your sandwich or a bowl of yogurt with fresh fruits are less likely to evoke any unpleasant symptoms. In addition, some dietitians recommend that you buy lactase enzyme drops or capsules and take them before eating foods that contain lactose.
When you create a well-balanced diet and perfect it, lactose becomes your friendly sugar again. And you can enjoy listening to Cyndi Lauper’s song without any sentimental attachment to the lyrics.
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