About Lactose Intolerance and Lactose-Free Milk

Lactose-free milk seems to be gaining in popularity these days. Many people are consuming lactose-free milk either because they have trouble digesting regular milk due to intolerance to lactose, or they perceive lactose-free milk to be healthier. Let’s take a closer look at what lactose intolerance is all about and how milk is made to be lactose-free.

glass of milk & heart shape over person's tummy

What is lactose?

Lactose is a form of sugar that is found primarily in milk and in some other dairy products. It is a disaccharide sugar, meaning that it contains two monosaccharide components. Those components are glucose and galactose.

Digesting lactose

The digestive enzyme lactase, which is naturally produced in your stomach, is required in order to digest the lactose. Lactase breaks lactose down into its two components (glucose and galactose), which are easily digestible.

Lactose intolerance is not an allergy

If you are lactose intolerant or have trouble digesting milk, it doesn’t mean that you are allergic to milk or that you have a lactose allergy. It means that your body does not produce enough of the digestive enzyme lactase for you to be able to easily digest the lactose in milk.

If you lack the enzyme lactase, when you drink milk it will pass undigested into your lower digestive tract. Then the bacteria in your digestive tract will digest the lactose and as a result there will be uncomfortable gas, painful cramps and bloating.

Common signs of lactose intolerance are abdominal irritation, gas, bloating, cramps, and nausea. If digesting lactose is an issue for you, the symptoms will show up between 30 minutes and 2 hours after you consume milk. Lactose intolerance has varying degrees. Some people can tolerate a small amount of lactose, while others cannot tolerate any lactose at all.

How is regular milk made into lactose-free milk?

Milk producers make lactose-free milk by chemically changing the composition, making it easily digestible. This is accomplished by adding a small amount of the enzyme lactase to the milk, which neutralizes the lactose because it breaks the lactose down into its two components (glucose and galactose). The addition of lactase can give milk a slightly sweeter taste. Some manufacturers might also use an ultra-pasteurization process to increase the shelf life of the lactose-free milk.

Is there any nutritional difference between regular milk and lactose-free milk?

No – there is no nutritional difference between lactose-free milk and regular milk. Both have the same amount of sugar and protein per serving, and they have exactly the same calorie count. The calcium content is the same as well. There are different types of milk with varying fat contents such as skim, 2%, 3 ¾%, etc. I compared a Lactose-free brand of milk to 2% regular milk and they had exactly the same fat content.

What about goat’s milk or goat’s milk cheese?

Goat’s milk is nutritionally the same as cow’s milk and contains lactose, but less lactose than cow’s milk. Many people who have problems digesting cow’s milk products find that goat’s milk products are easier to digest. It all depends upon the individual person.

Is yogurt naturally lactose-free?

Not quite. Yogurt is almost lactose-free and most lactose intolerant people have no problem digesting it because of the probiotics in the yogurt. The bacteria (probiotics) in yogurt pre-digests the lactose, making it easy for you to digest.

Milk kefir and quark are two other fermented dairy products that have almost no lactose due to the good bacteria or probiotics in them. Caution: watch out for the added sugar in milk Kefir – unless you buy plain / unsweetened.

Is butter a lactose-free dairy product?

Butter is not lactose-free, although interestingly enough, it has a very low amount of lactose. One cup of butter (227 grams) contains only 0.1 grams of lactose. Most people have no problem digesting butter.

How can I tell if a dairy product is low in lactose (such as cheese)?

That’s a great question! Because lactose is a form of sugar – you can check sugar content in the Nutrition Facts on the product label. Fewer grams of sugar would indicate less lactose in the cheese (or other milk product). Conversely – higher amounts of sugar on the label would indicate more lactose.

Trace amounts of lactose would be less than 0.5 grams of lactose. Cheddar, parmesan and Swiss cheese (types that are natural, or aged) usually have a trace amounts of lactose. When these types of cheeses are made, the liquid that is drained off contains most of the lactose along with the whey. The lactose that is left in the cheese changes to lactic acid during the aging process (ripening) of the cheese. The very small amount of lactose in this type of cheese is not usually an issue for most people.

Low levels of lactose would be less than 5 grams of lactose. Cheeses that are not aged, like mozzarella, cream cheese and ricotta cheese have low levels of lactose. These cheeses are fresh, and unripened. During the cheese making process, not all of the lactose in the curd is converted to lactic acid, which results in a low level of lactose. Cottage cheese has extra milk or cream mixed in with the curd. These types of cheeses could definitely be a problem for lactose intolerant people.

Processed cheeses and cheese spreads contain lactose because whey or milk is added to them during processing, which increases the lactose level. Again – these products would likely be an issue for many people.

Alternative milks such as almond milk, coconut milk, hemp milk and soy milk do not contain lactose or milk sugar. They contain added sugars, unless they are specifically made without added sugar and marked ‘unsweetened’.

Here’s a really short recap:

In simple terms – lactose intolerance is caused by a lack of the digestive enzyme lactase, which digests the milk sugar lactose. The degree of lactose intolerance depends upon the individual person.

It is interesting to note that lactose-free milk has exactly the same nutritional value as regular milk, although it might taste a bit sweeter. People who are lactose intolerant have many choices in the dairy aisle including lactose-free milk (the lactose has been neutralized), butter, yogurt, natural/ aged cheeses. Unripened cheeses such as ricotta, cottage cheese or mozzarella have more lactose and could be problematic for many people. Alternative milks made from seeds and nuts do not contain lactose.

Want to learn more about empowering foods, the foods that can give you all the energy you need to do everything you LOVE to do? Contact me and let’s chat!

 

Info Resources:

Lifehacker.com  – The Best Cheeses to Eat if You Are Lactose Intolerant

AZCentral –  How do dairies make lactose free milk?

Livestrong–  How is Lactose-Free Milk Made?

Prevention  – 6 Dairy Foods That Don’t Affect Lactose Intolerance

 

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