Low Lactose Dairy Foods (for the intolerant/sensitive eater)

I’ve never been that much of a milk drinker, but I do love dairy products. Cheese and ice cream are staples in my life, and I like having the option of dairy protein for snacks and meal options. Throughout my disordered eating days, I avoided dairy for the most part, and when I really committed to recovery, I found myself dealing with a number of stomach issues. Since many adult women grow into lactose intolerance, I figured that my body stopped producing the lactase enzyme since it didn’t need it for so long. (Without eating lactose, there’s no need to make enzymes that break it down!)

But dairy wasn’t the issue — my long history of yo-yo dieting, binge eating, and starving myself was. After a few months of eating regular and varied meals, my digestive system settled down. The diet industry likes to blame certain foods for tummy troubles, but more often than not, the problem is in our relationship with food — not the food itself.

However, I never really drank milk. Intuitive eating gave me the freedom to eat all the foods I enjoyed, but also the freedom to avoid foods I don’t enjoy, even if they’re nutritious. For me, this meant avoiding milk. It wasn’t something I ever did intentionally, I just never had milk cravings, and don’t usually eat foods that have a whole lot of milk in them. Then, a few weeks ago, I drank the most delicious iced Chai latte on an empty stomach and learned that I am, in fact, lactose intolerant.

Lactose intolerance doesn’t always mean dairy free.

Dairy foods are still very much a part of my life, but that’s because mild lactose intolerance doesn’t mean I need to avoid dairy products altogether. (Note: dairy intolerance/allergies are a separate issue, with symptoms triggered by milk protein rather than milk sugars.)

The reason that lactose intolerant folks can still tolerate many dairy foods is because the way they are processed/prepared removes most or all of the lactose in them. Here are a few foods you might be surprised to learn you can tolerate even if milk upsets your stomach:

1. Cheese

Cheese is a fermented product, which means that bacteria has been added to the milk in order to produce the final food. The bacteria use milk sugar as food, converting the lactose carbohydrate into energy, producing lactic acid (and other byproducts) which give flavor to the cheese, curdle the protein, and turn the milk into cheese. Cheese (especially hard cheese like Parmesan) is very low in lactose because the fermentation bacteria eat it all up! This means no lactose reaches the bacteria in your stomach which means…no symptoms of lactose intolerance.

2. Fairlife Milk

Fairlife milk is marketed as a high protein, lower sugar alternative to regular milk. The filtration is accomplished through specialized filters (which separate molecules of different sizes) as well as high speed centrifuges. (Centrifuges spin the milk around really fast, causing dense molecules to fall to the bottom, and allowing small proteins like sugar to remain on top.) The sugar and water are removed from the top, leaving behind a product that has more protein and less sugar per unit volume than milk that hasn’t undergone this process. Often times, lactase enzyme is added to the milk, too, breaking down any remaining lactose.

3. Greek Yogurt

Greek yogurt, like regular yogurt and cheese, is fermented. Bacteria ferments the lactose into acid, allowing the milk to become curdled. Regular yogurt processing stops here, but Greek yogurt undergoes one more step: it’s filtered. The filtration process allows some of the whey (water + some protein + sugar) to be removed from the casein curd (“yogurt”). The end product is yogurt with even less lactose.

4. Ice Cream

Of all the foods on this list, ice cream probably has the most lactose. But comparatively to regular milk, it isn’t all that much. Ice cream is made from milk…and cream. Cream actually has very little lactose at all. Milk from a cow naturally separates into two layers: a high fat “cream” layer, and the high protein “milk” layer. The cream layer is mostly fat and water. Cream has very little protein and very little sugar. It’s actually pretty different from milk altogether. Of course, some milk (and lactose) is added back in, but the full volume of a scoop of ice cream consists mostly of added sugar, fat, water, and other tasty dessert ingredients. Per unit volume, ice cream is a pretty low-lactose dairy product.

5. Butter, Cream, and Half & Half

We covered most of this rationale above, but just to reiterate: milk and cream are different. Cream is a mostly fat/water product with very little dairy protein and dairy sugar (lactose.) Half & half has some milk added back in (like ice cream) but butter actually has even less lactose than cream. Butter is made from cream by whipping it so fast that the fat molecules stick together and “fall out” of the watery solution where the lactose is. While cream is fat + water, butter is basically just fat, and basically nothing else…which means no lactose!

Are you lactose intolerant? What are your favorite dairy foods?


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