What is a Sugar?
Sugar is one those loaded words that can have a variety of meanings. For example sugar can mean sucrose, the white granules you put in your coffee, or it can refer to the level of glucose in your blood, as in: “I need to up my insulin because my blood sugar is sky high after putting all that sugar in my coffee”.
Sugar can also refer to carbohydrates (“carbs”), one of the three categories of chemicals, along with fats and proteins, which make up the food we eat.
Carbohydrates can be single molecules or joined together to form large chains. Single molecules are called monosaccarides and include glucose, galactose and fructose. Any two of these simple sugars combined are called disaccharides. For example, sucrose (table sugar) is a disaccharide combing the two simple sugars glucose and fructose. Lactose is a disaccharide containing glucose and galactose. Polysaccharides are long chains of monosaccharide joined together and are used in plants and animals for structure and storage. Sugar is stored as starch in plants and as glycogen in animals.
Sugars can combine with proteins to form glycoproteins and with fats to form glycolipids.
It’s All About Glucose
Glucose is our body’s primary source of energy and also the primary product of photosynthesis, the process in plants that turns sunlight into food. Most of the carbohydrates that we eat are converted to glucose during digestion. We crave sweet things because they usually contain lots of simple sugars that require very little or no work to convert to glucose. Most of the cells in our body can run on either glucose, fats, or proteins but the brain needs glucose to work.
Can You Be Allergic to Sugar?
The short answer is no. Simple sugars and disaccharides such as sucrose and lactose are not allergens and cannot cause true allergic reactions.
However, people have become allergic to glycoproteins, sugars combined with proteins. An example of this is allergy to galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose, also know as alpha-gal. Alpha-gal is a common glycoprotein found on all animal cells except humans and primates and those sensitized can have allergic reactions to a variety of meats including beef, pork, and lamb. Interestingly, a large number of alpha-gal allergic patients developed symptoms after being bitten by a tick, particularly the lone star tick found in the Southern and Eastern United States. Skin testing to meat and a blood test for allergic antibodies to alpha-gal can make the diagnosis.
Although sugars rarely cause true allergic reactions, they are a common cause of food intolerance. Because the cells in our body can only use glucose for fuel, all complex sugars (disaccharides and polysaccharides) have to be chopped-up or digested to make the glucose available. To do this, we produce enzymes that make the process of digesting the complex sugars possible. Many of these enzymes are specific for a particular type of sugar. For example lactase is the enzyme that facilitates the break down of cows milk sugar (lactose) to yield glucose and galactose that is then easily absorbed into circulation to be used as fuel.
Without lactase the milk sugar passes intact into the colon where it provides nutrition for colonies of fermenting bacteria. These bacteria feed on the sugar and as a by-product, produce a large amount of methane gas and fluid retention causing intestinal bloating, cramping, and gas. Treatment is avoidance of all mammalian milk and/or taking supplemental lactase (Lactaid) whenever milk products are consumed.
In summary, true allergic reactions to carbohydrates are rare while food intolerance, such as lactose intolerance, are more common. Other problems associated with sugar (i.e., how to say, “No thank you” to that cheese cake) is an important topic, although – except as a fellow victim- a bit out of my area of expertise.
Brian Millhollon, MD