Sugars combine with proteins to help our cells communicate
BY rebecca palmer
Most people associate sugar with either quick, delicious energy or harmful weight gain, but one Bountiful mom is spreading the word that many important sugars, also known as glycans, are major players in cellular communication in our bodies.
Tina Peterson started her career in California as a computer programmer, but after studying at Brigham Young University in Provo, she became more interested in near eastern studies and studied topics including child development and geriatric therapy. When she became a mom, her interest in nutrition led her to learn about the relatively new field of glycobiology.
According to the National Institutes of Health, glycans are a class of fundamental macromolecules that comprise living systems, similar to nucleic acids, proteins and lipids. However, relatively little attention has been paid to glycoscience and glycomics, so the National Research Council of the Academy of Sciences created a committee to learn more. That committee found that a better understanding of glycoscience could help in early detection of cancer, help protect against infectious diseases, improve understanding of the immune system and much more.
“Glycans are directly involved in the pathophysiology of every major disease,” reads a 2012 paper about the committee.
Peterson and her colleagues were thrilled to report that the National Institutes of Health committee recommended that glycoscience be integrated into high school and college curriculums within five years and included in standardized testing in 10.
She also has a monetary interest in the subject. Peterson is part of Mannatech, a Texas-based multi-level marketing business that sells nutritional supplements that purportedly provide eight vital glycans to the body.
Glycans come into play when cells combine them with protein to create glycoproteins, which form a hair-like antennae structure around cells. The cells use these structures, along with information from DNA, to communicate things such as fuel needs, immune response and much, much more.
The science has already been used for anti-doping testing in athletes to distinguish naturally occurring glycan molecules from commercially produced ones.
Peterson has taught many classes about glycobiology and believes that our modern diets prevent us from getting all the sugars we need for optimum cell communication.
“It is so profoundly pertinent to human health that if people don’t know about it, they’re bound to suffer the consequences,” Peterson said.
A booth she sponsored at the recent Health & Wellness Fair showed illustrations of glycoprotein structures surrounding cells alongside images of fresh fruit and vegetables. Signs said that it would take several times as much fruit today to get the same nutrients as food from fifty years ago. That is because produce is often harvested long before it ripens, so even if fruits have time to create glycans, they disappear by the time the food is on your table, Peterson said.
While the scientific underpinning of these “glyconutrients” is widely accepted by academics and doctors, Nobel Prize Laureates have asked that the their research not be referred to unfairly in nutrition marketing programs.
Furthermore, researchers from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Sanford Children’s Health Research Center published a scathing report about Mannatech and other neutraceutical companies in June of 2008, saying that “except for rare patients with certain types of congenital disorders of glycosylation, the inference that humans can benefit clinically from ingesting these monosaccharides is unsupported by controlled clinical trials.”
Multiple scientific studies performed later using grant money from Mannatech found positive benefits from use of its primary product, Advanced Ambrotose. Many of these have been catalogued in reputable databases of scholarly work.
Regardless of whether we get all the glycans we need from our modern diets, Peterson said she doesn’t want anyone to get the idea that fresh fruits and vegetables aren’t important.
“We still need to be eating them,” she said, pointing to a bowl of fresh spinach.