Lactose 101

June 09, 2014

Have you ever felt bloated or gassy after having a cream sauce or eating a bowl of ice cream? It might be lactose. Find out the basics here...

Have you ever felt bloated or gassy after having a cream sauce or eating a bowl of ice cream? You might be lactose intolerant. According to estimates, somewhere between 30 and 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant. The NIH says, “approximately 65 percent of the human population has a reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy.” And it can happen to anyone, at any age, even people who have never experienced any dairy sensitivity before.

What is lactose? 
Lactose is a sugar particular to milk and milk products. When milk is metabolized normally in the human body, the enzyme lactase breaks down lactose into the simple sugars glucose and galactose.

A person who is lactose intolerant produces little or no lactase. Thus the intact lactose molecule passes through the gastrointestinal (GI) tract resulting in various GI symptoms, including bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and flatulence. These symptoms can occur anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours after consuming milk products and will usually subside once the body has passed the lactose containing foods.

How do you know?
Lactose intolerance symptoms are very similar to those of other GI disorders, making it difficult to spot. Unfortunately, many people who are not lactose intolerant believe that they are, and vice versa.  Approximately 20 percent of those with digestive problems fall into this "confused" category.

Living with lactose intolerance. Many dairy products, including yogurt, milk, ice cream, and spreads, are available in lactose-free versions. Be sure to read labels in the dairy and freezer sections to find lactose-free varieties of your favorites. Soy and nut products are popular substitutes, and some who are lactose-intolerant can still consume goat's milk products. You can also experiment with milk, spreads, yogurt, ice cream, and other products made from almonds, rice, soy, coconut or hemp.

Read labels! Lactose is often found in foods you might not expect, such as breads and baked goods; cereals and breakfast drink mixes; instant potatoes and soups; margarine; non-kosher lunchmeat; salad dressing; pancake, biscuit, and cookie mixes. In addition to milk and lactose, words to watch out for on ingredient lists are: whey, curds, milk byproducts, dry milk solids, and non-fat dry milk powder.

There are plenty of alternatives for the lactose intolerant in the markets these days, so living lactose-free doesn't need to be stressful. In fact, it can actually be tasty and offer some interesting variety to your diet. 

For more info visit the NIH