Lactose Intolerant? You Can Still Eat These Dairy Products

One big misconception about milk and dairy in general is that if you are lactose intolerant, you can eat no cheese, no yogurt, no anything that came from a cow. But the fact is, that’s not really how lactose works. In fact, if you love dairy products (but your digestive tract doesn’t), there are still plenty of ways to incorporate them into your diet without being left in an uncomfortable state.

To talk about what folks who are lactose intolerant can and can’t eat, it’s important to clarify why they can or can’t eat it–and there’s a lot of misunderstanding around the subject, despite the fact that 50 million Americans have trouble digesting lactose. Lactose intolerance isn’t just an allergy (or intolerance–which are two very different things) to milk.

It’s actually an inability to process the sugar found in milk products (called lactose), due to an insufficient amount of the enzyme lactase. When milk and dairy products are processed, some of these sugars can be removed. And some processes–like the addition of live, active cultures–results in a reduced level of lactose regardless of processing. Others, like de-fatting and then re-adding milk solids for flavor (as is often the case with skim milk) actually add more lactose. In fact, milk solids–which are added to give flavor to lots of processed foods–can be more harmful to folks who are lactose intolerant than actual dairy products.

Additionally, the vast majority of are deficient in lactase still produce it, which means that they can handle moderate amount of lactose without feeling sick or uncomfortable.

So what does that mean for you, if you or someone in your family is lactose intolerant? Mostly that all dairy isn’t off limits–and some non-dairy foods are. Non-dairy items with milk solids and whey–both of which are high in lactose–should be avoided. Of course, every person is different, and trying small amounts of dairy foods is the best way to establish your level of comfort.  But the following foods are actually quite low in lactose, and can usually be enjoyed in moderate amounts:

  • Cultured Yogurts. The live, active cultures in real yogurt (read: not the ultra-sweetened artificial kind) basically do the digesting of lactose for you, because they contain lactase. So even if you’re pretty iffy about most high-lactose products, small amounts of yogurt which boast the “Live Active Cultures” seal should be just fine for you.
  • Hard/aged cheeses. The longer a cheese ages, the less lactose it contains. Cheeses like very sharp cheddar, parmesan, and Swiss are all considered “low lactose” cheese.
  • Sherbet. Sherbet contains much less lactose than ice cream, and often, less fat. Opt for sherbet (or, if you really want to play it safe and healthy, sorbet) for dessert instead of a high-lactose ice cream for better digestion.
  • Goat cheese. Mmmm, chevre. Goat’s milk does contain lactose (a lot of people think it doesn’t), but it operates differently than cow’s milk, and, for some, is easier to digest. Some people who are lactose intolerant can substitute goat cheese for other soft cheeses without much or any discomfort.

If you have a milk allergy, most of these products will still contain the ingredient you’re allergic to (usually casein protein or another dairy protein). But if you’re lacking in the lactase that helps digest lactose (that’s quite a sentence) and enjoy high-quality dairy products, consider cautiously incorporating one of these.

Do you have a favorite low-lactose dairy product that I missed? Tell me about it in the comments!

Image: Nancy’s

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    • Alicia

      Lactose intolerant? Go vegan. Consuming the breast milk of another species is unnatural and unhealthy, which is why so many people have lactose intolerance. Consuming milk from cows and goats is bad for humans and for animals. Cows are crammed into barren dirt lots where they wallow in mud and their own waste, and up to half the herd is suffering from a painful udder infection called mastitis. Once their productivity declines, cows are sent to a terrifying and painful death at a slaughterhouse at a fraction of their natural lifespans. Go vegan for your health and for the animals.

      • Hanna Brooks Olsen

        Hi, Alicia! Thanks for your comment. We’re doing a lot of discussion on the issues and controversies around dairy products this week. Hope you’ll look around the rest of the site for our other (sometimes vegan-friendly) articles!

      • David

        Milk is a wonder substance when it comes to nutrition. It’s amazing for you. If anything being vegan is unhealthy for you and it’s very unnatural. Your body was made to eat meat. Yes drinking milk after a certain age wasn’t intended but neither is being a vegetarian.

        If you have a problem with eating meat or drinking milk then don’t do it, but trying to convince someone to do an unnatural act by telling them that what they’re doing is unnatural is pretty stupid.

    • Krista

      Great article. In response to the comments left on it… Make sure you do your homework before saying cows are treated horrible & live in horrible conditions… then sent to a horrible death. There are dairy farmers all over the country that devot their lives to their farms & their animals and the picture that you just painted is NOT how things are done. Don’t take what someone does and paint everyone else in the field of work with the same image.