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What is lactose and what foods contain it?

The sugar found in the milk of all mammals is called lactose . From a technical point of view, it is a disaccharide composed of two molecules: glucose and galactose. When we consume it through food, it passes into the intestine, where it is absorbed by the bloodstream and used by the body for the cells to function properly.

What is lactose and why is it important?

Lactose is the main sugar of natural origin , present in both milk and dairy products. It is made up of glucose and galactose. Both are simple sugars that the body uses for both physical and mental energy. It is the enzyme lactase that is responsible for breaking down lactose into glucose and galactase. While it is true that glucose can be found in different foods, galactose is only present in lactose.

There are a number of reasons why lactose is essential for the proper functioning of the body. On the one hand, it is the main source of energy during the first year of life for babies . It provides about 50% of the energy that the little ones require.

In addition, it is a molecule that crosses the membranes of the body in a very simple way, so that it reaches the organs quickly. Once the lactose is broken down by the action of the lactase enzyme and is fermented in the colon, bifidobacteria grow, which are very important for a healthy growth of the intestinal flora .

And finally, lactose plays a key role in the formation of important substances for the immune system . That is why it plays a vital role in the development of both children and adults.

What is lactase?

An enzyme produced in the intestinal mucosa is known as lactase . It shows great vulnerability to attacks, so that the body can stop producing it temporarily or permanently. Its main function is to break down the sugar that is present in milk, thus forming a place for galactose and glucose.

However, the insufficiency of this enzyme is the main reason why a person develops lactose intolerance . When the body does not produce enough lactase, lactose remains in the intestine, so it ends up being fermented by intestinal bacteria.

This fermentation gives rise to a series of symptoms related to lactose intolerance: nausea, abdominal bloating , diarrhea, abdominal pain, gas and vomiting.

Lactose intolerance

It is estimated that 70% of the world’s population is lactose intolerant. For the body to be able to absorb lactose, it is essential that it be unfolded. What does this mean? That the glucose and galactose molecules divide, so that they are absorbed separately. For this splitting to occur, an enzyme called lactase must intervene.

People who suffer from lactose intolerance do not generate this enzyme, or if they do, not in enough quantity to break down lactose.

When the small intestine is unable to absorb lactose, it passes into the large intestine. Once there, the bacteria in the intestinal flora of the colon try to ferment it, leading to a series of symptoms: flatulence, diarrhea, bloating, and even spasms and vomiting in the most severe cases.

Origin of lactose intolerance

As recent studies point out, lactose intolerance already existed 5,000 years ago . Thus, the inhabitants of the Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age adopted agricultural practices, leading to numerous genetic changes.

Scientists point out that people are mammals prepared to feed on breast milk during our childhood. Therefore, the most common is that this problem does not appear until the age of five.

Causes of lactose intolerance

The lactose intolerance is relatively common in premature infants. Full-term babies usually do not show the first symptoms of this problem until they are three years old. In general, the first signs begin at five years of age, when the body stops producing lactase.

There are a number of risk factors that are important to highlight.

  • Age: Lactose intolerance usually occurs during adulthood.
  • Race: This problem is more common in black, Asian, or Hispanic people.
  • Premature Babies: Babies born before term may also have low lactase levels as the small intestine does not produce lactase-producing cells until late in the third trimester.
  • Small intestine diseases: Certain disorders, such as celiac disease or Crohn’s disease , can also cause intolerance to this molecule.
  • Treatments: Certain cancer treatments, such as radiation therapy or chemotherapy, increase the risk of this problem.

Lactose intolerance and milk allergy

Some consider lactose intolerance and milk allergy to mean the same thing. But really it’s not so. When a person suffers from a milk allergy, it means that the proteins present in cow’s milk, especially casein, provoke a certain response in the immune system. In the vast majority of cases, this response gives rise to different skin symptoms, such as hives or redness.

Those people who are allergic to milk cannot take any type of dairy product , even if it is lactose-free. Therefore, they should opt for the consumption of vegetable, soy or rice milks, for example.

What foods are rich in lactose?

Foods that contain high amounts of lactose fall into three broad categories.

  • Mammalian milk: for a dollop, all those that contain milk from a mammalian animal, such as cow, goat or sheep.
  • Derivatives of milk: derivatives of milk, such as cheese, cream, butter, yogurt or evaporated milk, also contain this substance.
  • Foods made with milk: and, finally, those foods in which milk is used as an ingredient: creams, desserts, sauces, ice creams, etc.

Other foods that have lactose

When we talk about lactose-rich foods, we automatically think of dairy products. However, there are many others that have lactose, although it really does not seem like it.

  • Meat preparations: all packaged meat, such as minced meat or hamburgers, contain lactose as a preservative.
  • Sausages: in the same way, sausages also contain lactose.
  • Appetizers: as for the appetizers, especially those potato chips with added flavors, mustard or ham, for example, also contain this substance.
  • Breads: regarding breads, those that have lactose in their composition are packaged ones, such as those prepared for hamburgers or hot dogs.
  • Liquors: Although not many people know it, in some alcoholic beverages, such as rum, gin or whiskey, lactose is added during the distillation process.
  • Medications: and finally, tablet-type medications, such as anti-inflammatories, antidepressants and antibiotics, contain lactose to better preserve their properties.

Lactose free milk

It was in 2006 when the first lactose-free milk was marketed in Spain. Since then, practically all manufacturing companies have added this type of milk to their product portfolio.

Today, in addition to milk, you can find many other lactose-free dairy products on the market: smoothies , yogurts, puddings, butters, creams, etc.

They are 100% safe foods, with a careful preparation process . They add lactase to the product artificially to break down the lactose. Thus, dairy products do not contain lactose, but glucose and galactose separately. Both are sugars that the body, even those with lactose intolerance, can digest without any problem.

It is important to note that these foods keep all the nutrients of the original product intact. In addition, by adding lactase , they are much easier to digest, not only for lactose intolerant, but for everyone.

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Hello Readers, I am Nikki Bella a Psychology student. I have always been concerned about human behavior and the mental processes that lead us to act and think the way we do. My collaboration as an editor in the psychology area of ​​Well Being Pole has allowed me to investigate further and expand my knowledge in the field of mental health; I have also acquired great knowledge about physical health and well-being, two fundamental bases that are directly related and are part of all mental health.

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