Pass on lactose, but please improve taste

September 28, 2009

Have we been ignoring the lactose intolerant’s right to tasty milk and dairy products?

Have we been ignoring the lactose intolerant’s right to tasty milk and dairy products? A taste test study conducted at Kansas State University examined the differences in flavor and overall sensory perception of different brands of widely available lactose-free and regular milk. So what gives, who won? Results found that there were “significant differences” between the two types of milks as reported by both trained sensory analysts and consumers. The taste tests were blinded; therefore subjects did not know which version they were drinking. The lactose-free varieties were described as chalky, ‘less fresh and more cooked’ tasting and even more viscous. Another difference in taste results from the splitting of the lactose molecule into, glucose and galactose; freeing these sugars results in a sweeter taste. 
Kansas State University researchers claim that the demand for lactose-free milk in the US has increased by 20 percent per year since 1997. If this is in fact true, what are we waiting for? Let’s focus on formulating lactose free products that can fool, and satisfy both trained sensory analysts and consumers alike.  
The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) a division of the National Institute of Health (NIH) estimates that between 30 and 50 million Americans are in fact lactose intolerant. This accounts for about 25 percent of adults, and prevalence rates differ by age and race. For instance, it is estimated that over 90 percent of Asian and Native Americans are lactose intolerant, as well as 75 percent of African Americans and approximately 50 percent of North American Hispanics. The prevalence of lactase deficiency in American Caucasians is thought to be only 20 percent. In addition to variability in prevalence, the age at which symptoms of lactose intolerance appear also varies. 
What causes lactose intolerance? The decreased production or absence of lactase in the small intestine inhibits the lactose molecule from being broken down into glucose and galactose. The intact lactose molecule passing through the gastrointestinal (GI) tract leads to GI symptoms after ingesting milk products. Symptoms can include bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea and flatulence; these symptoms are quite common of other gastrointestinal disorders, and unfortunately many people who are not in fact lactose intolerant, believe that they are and vice versa. This accounts for about 20 percent of people with digestive problems – either those searching for an answer, or those denying that lactose-containing products are the problem.  
Clearly a huge percentage of the population avoids milk and dairy due to GI distress related to (or thought to be) lactose intolerance. Is the majority of this population also avoiding lactose free products because they fail to satisfy their taste buds? The Lactose Intolerance in Multicultural Communities Survey, conducted by Richard Day Research, found that 48 percent of African American and 63 percent of Hispanic women who avoid lactose worry that they are not fulfilling their daily calcium and vitamin A and D needs.  This leads us at to believe that these women are either avoiding all types of milk and fortified dairy products, including lactose-free milk or lactose-free. Brand marketers have missed a huge target population. In any case it’s time we stop ignoring the taste buds and health of our lactose free friends and figure out a tasty, GI friendly formulation.