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Research into sugar and a special Arctic gene

13. April 2023

New research will reveal why Greenlanders who cannot digest sugar have a lower risk of lifestyle diseases than other people. In Maniitsoq and Nuuk, almost 40 Greenlanders have participated to solve the riddle of why.

Some people in Greenland have inherited a unique gene. A gene found only in Arctic populations that prevents them from digesting ordinary white sugar. Just like some people can't digest lactose. Although these individuals often experience stomach problems when eating sugar, they appear to be healthier than others. Researchers are currently investigating why, by looking at the results from a study conducted in Maniitsoq and Nuuk in 2022. 

During the study, the participants underwent various tests that examine their preferences for food, including a buffet test where they had to eat what they want in 20 minutes. "So far, it seems that those who cannot tolerate sugar like the same food as others. But we haven't finished investigating this yet," says Ninna Senftleber, postdoc at Steno Diabetes Center Copenhagen and Greenland.

The participants also had to eat two different types of diet for 3 days each, namely a Greenlandic diet, with lots of fish and meat, and a Western diet with lots of pasta, bread and fruit and some sugar. The participants had different experiences along the way, says Ninna: "For example, some felt that they were very full of the Greenlandic food, while others felt they quickly became hungry again. So we are very excited to see how the body and gut bacteria have reacted to the two types of diet. We expect that participants who cannot tolerate sugar react differently to the Western diet than those who cannot tolerate sugar. And conversely, we expect them to react the same to the Greenlandic diet." An exciting sequel follows.

The project is supported by Independent Research Fund Denmark, Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, Greenland Research Council and Brugseni®. 

Buffet, which each participant was given 20 min. to eat from. 

This is what the food that participants had to eat at home looked like. At the top you can see the Greenlandic food with fish cakes, salmon, halibut, reindeer, dried amasats and blueberries. At the bottom is the western with various ready meals, bread, fruit yogurt and fruit and vegetables. 

Ninna Senftleber, Jacob Yrfelt and Anna Skau collect and pack food for the participants.