It's crucial to understand why your body reacts to certain foods in certain ways. One of those things is lactose and therefore lactose intolerance. While we read on more and more food packages the label “lactose free” or “dairy free”, not everyone knows why the body sometimes reacts sensitive to lactose and who should avoid it.
What is lactose?
Basically, lactose is the carbohydrate naturally found in all sorts of milk, including the human milk. Nowadays, it is also used as an ingredient in some processed foods, such as yogurt, chocolate or cheese.
Only humans developed the ability to digest lactose as adults.
What is Lactose intolerance?
Being lactose intolerant means the inability to digest lactose. In order to be digested properly, it must be broken down in the gut by the enzyme lactase into two distinct components (glucose and galactose).
Most infants produce lactase for a while. But they lose the ability to digest lactose after weaning. Which means: Milk is not a natural food for us. That we lose the ability to digest it properly is a clear indicator for that.
Lactose intolerance occurs in around 90-100% of Asians, 65-70% of Africans and 10% of Caucasians. Basically, lactase activity was sustained only in a majority of adults whose origins were in Northern Europe or in some Mediterranean populations. Overall, about 75% of the world's population lose their lactase enzyme after weaning.
Therefore it's "normal" to be intolerant, especially in cultures that have not had milk for a long time already.
If you suffer from lactose intolerance, there is no need to push yourself to drink milk. In fact, milk does not offer any nutrients that can not be found in other foods.
What are the symptoms of lactose intolerance?
Most common symptoms are:
If these symptoms occur within 30 minutes to 2 hours after consuming milk or dairy products, you should check if you suffer from lactose intolerance.
The severity of symptoms varies depending on the amount of lactose a person can tolerate. Maybe you are sensitive to extremely small amounts of lactose-containing foods, while others can consume larger amounts.
Just try out if your symptoms vanish, when you stop eating lactose.
Surprising sources of lactose
This may shock you: even medications, both via prescription and over the counter, often contain lactose. Even some birth control pills. It improves the drug's bioavailability.
Sometimes lactose is used in processed grains as a cheaper source of sugar. Watch out for waffles, pancake mixes, cookies, breads, granola bars and cereals.
Yes, it's probably the last thing you'd expect to find lactose in. Skip processed meats, such as hot dogs, bacon, sausages and cold cuts and focus instead on kosher products or national brands with a lactose-free label.
Instant coffee and meals
In fact, you can thank lactose for the products speedy dissolubility. It's lactose that gives your instant drink or product the texture and flavour.
Please don't replace butter with margarine. Most margarines will add a lot of lactose to your diet, because it helps the margarine to taste more like butter. Check the ingredients list!
Foods high in lactose
- Milk, milkshakes and milk-based beverages
- Whipping cream and coffee cream
- Ice cream, ice milk and often times sorbet
- Puddings and custards
- Cream soups and creamy sauces
- Foods made out of milk, such as yogurt
How do I know if processed foods contain lactose?
I can't say it enough: Read the nutrition label and the ingredient list! Start in your kitchen by going through the ingredient lists on the foods you already have at home. That way, you are already informed when you are shopping in the grocery store.
Lactose doesn't always appear under its common name though. Look for whey, casein, milk by-products, milk solids, dry milk powder, dry milk solids, nougat or nonfat dry milk.
How is lactose intolerance treated?
That's pretty easy. You control your symptoms by changing your diet. Just skip on the foods that contain lactose.
People with lactose intolerance can usually find a level of lactose-containing foods that will not produce any symptoms. However, listen to your body!
If you're not intolerant and you enjoy some milk products, go ahead! Don't skip on them, just because there are lactose-free products available.