Fun fact: While 65% of the population is officially diagnosed with lactose intolerance, some experts believe that we’re all at least a little bit lactose intolerant—we just brush off the bloating and gas as a normal part of life.
I remember reading a story about an American family with two boys who were intolerant to lactose. They had moved to New Zealand, and were told by a local farmer that, “the dairy here is different.” The family was intrigued, just exactly how was the dairy different? Skeptical but very curious, they performed a little dairy experiment —and gave the boys this so called different kind of dairy.
Just like magic, the boys were not only able to tolerate the locally-produced cheese, cream, butter, etc. they had absolutely zero symptoms when it was consumed.
Come on really, you’re thinking —how is this possible?
The answer really came down to what the cows were being fed.
The milk products the boys’ were consuming in America, were products of grain + legume fed cow’s (barley, corn + soy). This diet, often combined with synthetic hormones, is given to the animals to help them fatten-up faster. This diet however, is not biologically appropriate for their sensitive digestive systems, and they have the tendency to fall ill. This leads to increased antibiotic use, and as Michael Pollan so simply says: “we are what are meat eats.”
A majority of milk products in New Zealand are sourced from pasture-raised/grass-fed animals. In fact, the New Zealand dairy industry sells itself on: grass and open air. Leading studies how that pasture-raised animals have better mineral status. The diets of animals in confinement are fortified with synthetic vitamins, which are more poorly absorbed.
Dairy farming systems in New Zealand are typically focused on grass growth and, as such, tend to be reliant on fast growing, lush species such as sugar-rich ryegrasses and nitrogen-rich clover combinations.
Something as simple as the diet of the animals, made all the difference in the boys’ reaction to the milk.
For those with milder cases of lactose intolerance, there are several dairy products that might be a-ok…thanks to their naturally lower lactose content.
The more the cheese is aged, the less lactose sugar + casein protein. The same goes for a higher dairy fat content e.g. cream vs. skim or 2% milk. The cream has higher fat and therefore less milk sugar + protein (i.e. lactose + casein).
Lactose, or milk sugar, is digested by an enzyme in the body known as lactase. Lactase is produced in the bodies of babies, so that they can digest breast milk. Some children and adults don’t produce enough lactase, which can lead to a condition known as lactose intolerance, where milk sugar is not properly digested.
Cheese with trace levels (less than 0.5 gram) of lactose include: organic aged cheese (such as Cheddar, Parmesan + Swiss) can be digested by many people with lactose intolerance. During the cheese making process, most of the lactose is drained off with the whey. The small amount that remains in the curd is changed to lactic acid during ripening (aging) of cheese.
Easier-to-digest dairy favourites
YOGURT + KEFIR
Fabulously fermented foods are easier on the digestive system. They contain beneficial bacteria, and help repopulate the gut with good probiotic life. Kefir is a fermented milk product (cow, goat, or sheep milk) that’s sort of like a drinkable yogurt. Kefir contains high levels of vitamin B12, calcium, magnesium, vitamin K2, biotin, folate, enzymes + probiotics.
Since butter is made from mostly milk fat, it contains very little lactose, and is often very well tolerated. And it’s no coincidence that fats help with the absorbtion of the all those minerals found in dairy products. Total buttery bonus.
Unlike the other dairy products listed, goat’s milk does contain significant amounts of lactose. However, for any one who’s only mildly intolerant—meaning, cow’s milk bothers you, but cheese doesn’t—can definitly give goat dairy a try. Goat’s milk is still lower in lactose than cow’s milk, and has been shown to be easier to digest for both kids and adults with sensitive stomachs.
NUT + SEED MYLK
Then, there’s always the tried and true non-dairy options like: almond milk. My other personal favourites are coconut and hemp. I always buy unsweetened. Or I love to *make my own* and add a date, or touch of maple syrup to sweeten it up a bit. Yum.