Increasing Lactose Intolerance Rates and Dairy-Free Options

Why Lactose Intolerance is Increasing


What is Lactose Intolerance?

Lactose is the natural sugar found in milk. Lactose intolerance is caused by not having enough of the enzyme lactase in your gut to digest this milk sugar; this is different than a cow’s milk or diary milk allergy, although some of the symptoms can be the same. Although we see other food allergies increasing also, this article discusses lactose intolerance.

What are the Symptoms of Lactose Intolerance?

Many people notice a correlation between dairy and digestion woes. When someone with lactose intolerance digests dairy products, it can cause abdominal bloating and cramping, flatulence (gas) and diarrhea within a few hours of ingestion.

What Foods Contain Lactose?

The symptoms of lactose intolerance can be so bothersome that some people avoid dairy products all together. Yet some dairy products contain very little lactose, and may not need to be avoided. For instance, although fermented yogurt has some lactose, it is often well tolerated. Most fermented dairy products have less lactose than milk because the fermenting organisms (good bacteria) use up the sugar during fermentation.

Lactose content of common cow’s milk products:

Product: Approximate lactose content (grams)

  • Sweetened Condensed Milk (1 cup): 40
  • Milk, most varieties (1 cup): 10-12
  • Ice Milk (1/2 cup): 9
  • Ice Cream (1/2 cup): 6
  • Yogurt, cultured, low fat (1 cup): 5-10
  • Half and half (1/2 cup): 5
  • Sour Cream (1/2 cup): 4
  • Cottage Cheese (½ cup): 2-3
  • Sherbet, orange (1/2 cup): 2
  • Cream, American & Swiss Cheese (1 oz.): 1
  • Sharp Cheddar Cheese (1 oz.): 0

Why is Lactose Intolerance Increasing?

Lactose intolerance, first described in 1963, varies by nationality, age and other chronic disease. In cultures where dairying was unheard of originally, as with Native Americans, milk (lactose) is often poorly tolerated. And, in people with Celiac Disease, lactose is usually not tolerated because the lactase enzyme is produced on the tips of the microvilli in the stomach, which is the area that is damaged in the digestive tract of celiac patients. However, lactose tolerance can sometimes improve when these microvilli are healed through strict adherence to a gluten-free diet.

One of the main reasons that lactose intolerance is increasing is because our population is aging. Lactase production decreases as you age, in fact it starts rapidly decreasing soon after weaning, and especially after childhood. Therefore you see less lactose intolerance in kids compared to older adults.

What Helps Lactose Intolerance?

Luckily, the enzyme lactase is available in tablets that can be taken with lactose containing foods, which can greatly reduce symptoms for those who want to enjoy dairy products without the stomach upset. For those who wish to avoid dairy, many dairy substitutes with calcium and vitamin D fortification are now available such as almond, soy and rice milk products. So go ahead and try some lactase enzymes, lower lactose dairy products or even dairy-free alternatives and see if you can’t enjoy some of your favorite foods again.

Jennifer M. Wood, MS, RD

Jennifer M Wood, MS, RDN is registered dietitian nutritionist and successful food and nutrition consultant in Southeastern Minnesota. As the founder of a nation-wide gourmet food company, Wood wrote Jenny’s Country Kitchen…recipes for making homemade a little easier! (2003), which is a timeless collection of make-ahead, freeze-ahead and pantry-stocking recipes and time saving tips to help busy families put nutritious food on table. Wood graduated with a pre-med bachelors degree in nutritional science in 2001, completed her dietetic internship in 2007 and went on to complete a master’s degree in food and nutrition in 2011.

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