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!