Although dairy milk is often touted as an important and nutritious component of any diet, especially for children, an estimated 65 to 75 percent of the world’s population is lactose intolerant, which means that they experience unpleasant physical symptoms when consuming dairy.
People who need to avoid lactose also need to avoid most dairy products unless they have been formulated to remove lactose, but what is lactose, anyway?
What is lactose?
We already know that lactose is a naturally occurring component in dairy products, but what is it really?
Lactose is a naturally occurring sugar that is found in dairy milk. Lactose is a large molecule that is made up of two smaller sugar molecules: galactose and glucose. The body digests lactose by breaking apart the glucose and galactose molecules in the intestine, where they are then absorbed by the cells that line the walls of the small intestine.
In order to perform this function, the body uses an enzyme called lactase, which is found on the surface of the cells that line the walls of the small intestine.
What is lactose intolerance?
When people’s lactase enzymes have low levels of activity or no activity, they experience a condition called lactose intolerance.
Lactose intolerance is a condition in which the body cannot properly digest the lactose that is naturally found in milk and milk products. It occurs in people who have a lactase deficiency, which means that their bodies are unable to properly break down lactose and absorb it into the body.
Having lactose intolerance is not the same thing as having a milk allergy or a dairy allergy, and it is not a harmful condition. However, it can cause unpleasant and inconvenient gastrointestinal symptoms for some people. It should be noted that some people have low levels of the lactase enzyme but are able to digest milk products without experiencing any symptoms of lactose intolerance. People who are diagnosed with lactose intolerance experience symptoms after they consume lactose.
What are the symptoms of lactose intolerance?
Each person with lactose intolerance experiences symptoms slightly differently. Symptoms caused by lactose intolerance can range from fairly mild to severe digestive problems.
The most common symptoms of lactose intolerance include:
- Abdominal cramps
Other symptoms associated with lactose intolerance include nausea, vomiting, constipation, pain in the lower portion of the abdomen, and an urgent need to go to the restroom.
The symptoms of lactose intolerance occur as a result of undigested lactose that sits in the small intestine. The body sends water into the small intestine to flush out the lactose, causing diarrhea. As the undigested lactose moves from the small intestine into the colon, it is fermented by bacteria, which creates short-chain fatty acids and gas. As a result, people can begin to experience pain, bloating, and flatulence in addition to diarrhea.
Each person with lactose intolerance experiences different symptoms, but symptoms also vary depending on the amount of lactose a person can tolerate and how much lactose is consumed. Some people might not experience any symptoms while adding some milk to their cereal, but may experience severe symptoms after eating ice cream.
What foods commonly contain lactose?
Contrary to popular belief, cow’s milk products aren’t the only products that contain lactose. Goat’s milk products also contain lactose.
The following products all contain lactose unless specially formulated to be lactose-free, as indicated on the label:
- Cow’s milk
- Goat’s milk
- Ice cream
- Cheese (both hard and soft cheeses)
However, even among the products listed above, some have very little lactose. For example, butter contains 0.1-gram of lactose per 20 gram serving, and some cheeses have little lactose as well. Cheddar, swiss, colby, monterey jack, and mozzarella cheeses all contain less than one gram of lactose per serving.
Other products may contain lactose because they contain some type of dairy as an ingredient, such as:
- Foods made with a sauce that contains milk
- Boiled sweets and candies, including chocolate
- Instant soups and sauces
- Ready meals
- Potato chips, flavored tortillas, and nuts
- Biscuits and cookies
- Breads and baked goods
- Breakfast cereals
- Processed meats, such as hot dogs or sausages
- Desserts and custards
In order to determine if a certain food contains lactose, it’s best to check the label to see if the item contains dairy.
Dairy products can be listed under the following names:
- Milk powder
- Milk solids
- Milk casein
- Milk sugar
- Malted milk
- Milk byproducts
- Dry milk solids
- Whey protein
- Whey protein concentrate
- Sour cream
Some people are confused when they see that a product contains ingredients like lactic acid, lactate, lactalbumin, or casein. Don’t worry, these ingredients aren’t lactose. Some products are also specially formulated to remove lactose, which is indicated on the label.
Are people with lactose intolerance at risk of nutritional deficiencies?
Your mom probably told you all throughout your childhood that you needed to drink your milk in order to grow up strong and have strong bones, and she’s right -- dairy milk is highly nutritious and is an excellent source of protein, calcium, and vitamins, including vitamin A, vitamin B12, and vitamin D.
If you’re unable to properly digest dairy, you may struggle to receive enough of these important nutrients to ensure high bone mineral density and prevent the development of serious conditions like osteoporosis and osteopenia. What’s a person with lactose intolerance to do?
Recognizing this issue, some companies have begun developing plant-based products that are designed to replace the protein and nutrients provided by dairy milk. These products, including protein shakes and protein powders, are not only ideal for people with lactose intolerance or dairy allergies, but also people who follow a plant-based diet, including vegans and vegetarians, or who prefer to avoid dairy products for other reasons.
Orgain’s Vegan Organic Nutrition Shake is just one example, being made without soy ingredients, dairy ingredients, and lactose ingredients while still being packed with immune-supporting vitamins and minerals.
Are there any treatments available for lactose intolerance?
There is no cure available for lactose intolerance, but there may be a few different ways to enjoy your favorite dairy products even if you have lactose intolerance. It’s possible to buy enzymes over the counter that can help your body digest lactose. These enzymes typically come in the form of tablets you can swallow before a meal containing lactose or drops that can be added to food or drinks. These enzymes won’t work for everyone, but some people find them to be very effective for doses of lactose less than 50 grams.
There is also some evidence to suggest that gradually adding lactose into your diet, or lactose exposure, can help some people build up a tolerance for lactose. More studies are needed, and the existing research included small test groups, but some people may have luck with this method. Adding probiotics and prebiotics to your diet has also been shown to be helpful in reducing symptoms of lactose intolerance in some people.
Being lactose-intolerant might mean there are some foods and drinks you might want to keep off your menu, but it doesn’t mean you can’t still get the nutrients you need that would have come in that whole fat milk. Thankfully, Orgain has you covered with a wide selection of nutritional products made without lactose!