The prevalence of genetically determined lactase nonpersistence is based on the results of the lactose H2 breath test. This test, however, is an indirect test, which might lead to misinterpretation.
We determined lactase activity in healthy Chinese and Dutch students using a novel 13C-lactose digestion test. The cut-off value of this test was established in a Chinese population with a homogenous genetic background of lactase nonpersistence and was compared with the results obtained in a Caucasian population. Twenty-five grams of a 13C-lactose solution was consumed by 12 known H2-positive and 5 H2-negative Chinese students and 48 Dutch students and, subsequently, 13C-glucose concentration in plasma and H2 excretion in breath were measured.
A similar 13C-glucose response curve was found in all Chinese students. The mean response curve in the Dutch students was more pronounced (P < 0.01). The 1 h (peak) plasma 13C-glucose concentration was the best discriminator between lactose digesting and maldigesting subjects. The cut-off level of 2 mmol L-1 13C-glucose in plasma was defined in the H2-positive Chinese students group. Based on the 13C-glucose response the prevalence of lactose maldigestion in the Dutch subjects was 25%; based on the lactose H2 breath test 17%.
Using the 13C-lactose digestion test the results demonstrate a higher prevalence of lactose maldigestion in a Caucasian population than indicated by the results of the H2 breath test. A moderate increase in the plasma 13C-glucose concentration after consumption of 13C-lactose in the young adult Chinese subjects indicates a residual lactase activity in that age group, even when a positive H2 breath test result is obtained. These results indicate that the 13C-glucose concentration in plasma more accurately reflects the small intestinal lactose digestion capacity than the lactose H2 breath test.