Are you worried about lactose? Do you know why?

Lactose in Cheese

I’ve noticed a fashionable trend to regard dairy and lactose as something of a food nasty, a bit like gluten is regarded these days. And if you’re unfortunate enough to have an allergic reaction to it I’d imagine you would agree. But is it really as bad as the food marketers are making it out to be?

Are all these dairy and lactose free products that are popping up better for us? Or just more processed food being foisted onto unsuspecting consumers by marketers looking for a new angle? Lactose free ice-cream, cheese, even milk. After 6 years of having this conversation with customers who want to make dairy free yogurt and cheeses I thought I’d share what I’ve learnt about the issue.

Lactose is a natural sugar found in milk, just like fructose is a natural sugar found in fruit. Some people have trouble digesting it and some people don’t. Lactose intolerance is different than having an allergy to dairy – being lactose intolerant means you have trouble digesting lactose – you don’t have an allergic reaction. If you have an allergic reaction to dairy you’ll know about it.

The folks that say we shouldn’t be eating dairy foods claim they’re only intended for infant mammals. But a lot of the adult population have the ability to digest dairy – we have the lactase enzyme in our intestines which is the same enzyme calves and lambs have to help them digest milk. If you are lactose intolerant your body doesn’t produce enough of this lactase enzyme to digest the lactose and you get stomach cramps, gas and diarrhea after eating lactose. Many people who are lactose intolerant can have small amounts of lactose without these severe effects.

The scientists seem divided on whether lactose intolerance is genetic or cultural. For a while they thought populations from certain geographies that historically ate a lot of dairy, such as Europe and India, had lower rates of lactose intolerance and cultures without a history of high dairy consumption, had higher rates of intolerance.

Now they’ve got our DNA nutted out, some of them think it’s more about genetics than geography. It also seems to be something that can change in an individual over time. Some folks say that drinking raw milk is the solution for the lactose intolerant but recent research by Stanford University Med School doesn’t back up this claim.

lactose free cheese

Aside from digestion, which is valid, the other reasons recently cited for not eating dairy range from cancer and cholesterol to fat and calcium absorption and try as I might I honestly can’t make head nor tail of any of them. Dairy is a natural food that a lot of us are designed to eat. It has a lot of vitamins, minerals, fats and proteins that our bodies can make good use of. I do have more sympathy for an objection to dairy goods on the basis of the environmental damage and animal welfare of modern dairy farming practices rather than on any health related basis. Dairy products from well managed, organic grass fed herds are infinitely better for the animals, the planet and you than dairy from factory farmed, grain fed animals.

So how should you approach dairy in your diet?  Well if you think you are lactose intolerant there are tests available – get yourself properly diagnosed. Don’t just jump straight to coconut yogurt and soy milk at the first sign of a tummy upset. And here is the actual lactose content of different dairy goods. It could help you make a more informed choice before eliminating dairy altogether from your diet.

  • Whey & Whey Powder – high levels of lactose
  • Pasteurised Whole Milk – 5%
  • Soft Cheeses, Sour Cream, Cottage Cheese, Cream Cheese – 3%
  • Natural Yogurt and Milk Keffir – 2%
  • Butter – 1%
  • Clarified Butter – 0%
  • Hard Aged Cheeses – 0%

I always giggle at the “lactose free cheese” being sold in supermarkets now. Great marketing but the reality is that most of the lactose present in milk is in the whey. Whey is largely discarded during cheese making. As the cheese dries and matures it loses more lactose – so the older and harder the cheese, the less lactose it is likely to contain.

Beware the marketers ploys and read the fine print. If you have been diagnosed as lactose intolerant, avoid whey and whey powder products, try good hard cheese, clarified butter and small amounts of natural Greek probiotic yogurt before you discard dairy from your diet altogether. Go for natural unprocessed dairy goods – processed cheeses and yogurts with “milk solids” added back in as bulking agents will have higher lactose content than the list above.

Maybe dairy and lactose aren’t the enemies they are being made out to be? Maybe we should just avoid overly processed dairy foods and eat a good balanced diet from all the food groups, in as natural a state as possible? There’s a thought.

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6 comments

  1. I recommend that those who are lactose intolerant try Milk Kefir (a fermented food). The lactobacillus break down the lactose amongst other things. You can make milk kefir yourself if you can find someone with grains. Its a very nutritious food which I even feed to my dogs with very positive results.

    1. Thanks Lyn, that is interesting. I suppose it is a little like yogurt in that regard.

  2. Fantastic post Heather, I have been saving it for when I have a little to read it properly.
    It seems dairy is really in the naughty corner at the moment in the health fads. And dairy-free milks, yogurt and cheeses are popping up all over the show. Many of the anti-dairy talk is how environmentally harmful it is, and yes there is certainly some very bad practices. However, there are many producers going out of there way to produce top quality dairy-products. And when I can go to the farm, see the happy healthy cows and buy milk direct from the farmer to turn into yogurt and cheese for my family, this is as local and sustainable as it gets. While don’t get me started on almond milk made from drought-ridden California, or cashew cheese made from cashews from China that have traveled half the world to arrive on our doorstep… I know there are people with legitimate allergies, having been there myself with my son when he was younger. But we sourced local goat milk and made cheese and yogurt from that, and now he seems fine with small amounts of good quality dairy – actually the way we are meant to eat it, in moderation. Well except when Heather drops off some of her oozy cheeses that have to be eaten in one sitting of-course!! Thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙂

    1. Thanks Nicola, I totally support what you’re saying. Everything in moderation and make sure it’s good everything. I find if I have less I can also afford to buy better. Thanks for taking the time to share – as a respected voice in the nutritional world I value your comments 🙂

  3. Hi Heather
    Thanks for an interesting and honest post. Although I have no allergies, I have had problems with some food groups since the birth of my third son, nearly 8 years ago. My Doctor has said it is IBS as stress is a trigger but gluten has been my major problem. Over the last year I have had issues with breakouts on my face and with a lot of elimination of foods and re-introducing them I put it down to dairy, or too much of it. As a family we eat healthy, grow our own vegetables and some fruit, buy organic milk, butter, meat. I don’t buy cheap nasty food. As a dairy lover I have had to look at alternatives and for me coconut yogurt is a product I don’t react to and I don’t have ‘tummy/digestive’ issues with almond or rice milk. I have recently learnt to make my own almond milk which is easy, as I am concerned with what is added to our food and where it comes from. I do agree that dairy should be in moderation and seek out the best you can buy from our fine artisan farmers & producers here in NZ, but when you can’t have it seek out the best in the alternatives too. My homemade almond milk is just almonds (organic if I can) and water and I use the pulp in baking. I am not entirely sure what it is in dairy that my skin is sensitive too but at nearly 40 years old I don’t care for skin problems so I am grateful for healthy alternatives. Thank you. Fiona.

    1. Thanks for your feedback Fiona. I agree with you. Whatever food you eat, if it can be as close to natural as possible you are taking huge steps in the right direction for your health and that of your family.

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