People with lactose intolerance often avoid eating dairy products to avoid unwanted, uncomfortable, or embarrassing side effects.
However, not all dairy foods are high in lactose. Depending on the severity of your lactose intolerance, you may be able to consume some low-lactose foods.
What is lactose intolerance?
Lactose intolerance is a very common digestive problem. It affects around 65% of the world’s population. Interestingly, it’s most prevalent in Asia and South America but much less common in parts of the Western world, including North America, Europe, and Australia.
Those who have it don’t have enough of an enzyme called lactase, found in the gut. Lactase is needed to break down lactose, the primary sugar found in milk.
Without lactase, lactose can pass through the gut undigested and cause unpleasant symptoms, including:
Fear of developing these symptoms can lead people to avoid foods containing lactose, such as dairy products. However, this isn’t always necessary, as not all dairy foods contain enough lactose to cause problems for people with an intolerance.
It’s thought that many people with an intolerance can eat up to 12 grams of lactose a day without experiencing any symptoms. To put that in perspective, 12 grams is the amount found in 1 cup (230 ml) of milk.
Lactose intolerance affects everyone differently. For some people, 12 grams may still be too much. It’s essential to be aware of your own symptoms and how much lactose you can handle.
Also, remember that the 12-gram estimate is for the whole day. So if you have a glass of milk, then butter on your bread and cream in your coffee, you will be over the 12 grams, despite choosing low lactose options.
Certain dairy foods are naturally low in lactose. Below are 5 of them.
1. Low lactose butter
Butter is a high-fat dairy product made by churning cream or milk to separate its solid fat and liquid components.
The final product is around 80% fat, as the liquid part of milk, which contains all the lactose, is removed during processing.
This means that the lactose content of butter is really low. 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of butter contains only 0.1 grams lactose.
Low levels are unlikely to cause problems, even if you have an intolerance.
Butter made from fermented milk and clarified butter products, such as ghee, contain even less lactose than regular butter.
So, ditch the dairy-free spread unless you have another reason to avoid butter or need to use a large quantity.
Summary: Butter is a high-fat dairy product that contains only trace amounts of lactose. This means it’s usually fine to include in your diet if you have lactose intolerance.
2. Hard cheese
Cheese is made by adding bacteria or acid to milk and separating the cheese curds from the whey.
Given that the lactose in milk is found in the whey, much of it is removed when cheese is made.
However, the amount found in cheese can vary, and cheeses with the lowest amounts are the ones that have been aged the longest.
This is because the bacteria in cheese can break down some of the remaining lactose, lowering its content. The longer a cheese is aged, the more lactose the bacteria can get rid of.
This means that aged, hard cheeses are often very low in lactose. For example, 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of cheddar cheese contains only trace amounts.
Cheeses that are low in lactose include Parmesan, Swiss, and cheddar. People with lactose intolerance can often tolerate moderate portions of these cheeses.
Cheeses like pecorinos, made from sheep’s milk, are also naturally lower in lactose, as sheep’s milk has lower lactose concentrations than cow’s milk.
Cheeses that tend to be higher in lactose include cheese spreads, soft cheeses like Brie or Camembert, cottage cheese, and mozzarella.
Suggested read: Nondairy substitutes for 7 common dairy products
Even some higher lactose cheeses might not cause symptoms in small portions.
Summary: The amount of lactose can vary between different types of cheese. In general, cheeses that have been aged longer, such as cheddar, Parmesan, and Swiss, have low levels of lactose.
3. Probiotic yogurt
People with lactose intolerance often find yogurt much easier to digest than milk.
This is because most yogurts contain live bacteria that can help break down lactose, so your body has less to process on its own.
For example, one of the studies included in a 2014 review of papers on lactose digestion suggested that when eating yogurt, lactose intolerant people’s digestive tracts retained 60% less undigested lactose when eating yogurt than when consuming the same amount of milk.
According to the same study, yogurt also causes fewer symptoms, with only 20% of people reporting digestive distress after eating the yogurt, compared with 80% who struggled after drinking the milk.
It’s best to look for yogurts labeled “probiotic,” which means they contain live cultures of helpful bacteria. Yogurts that have been pasteurized, a process that kills the bacteria, may not be as well tolerated.
Additionally, full-fat and strained yogurts, like Greek and Greek-style yogurt, could be even better for people with lactose intolerance.
This is because full-fat yogurts contain more fat and less lactose-laden whey than low-fat yogurts.
Greek and Greek-style yogurts are strained during processing. This removes even more of the whey, making them naturally much lower in lactose.
Summary: Lactose intolerant people often find yogurt more manageable to digest than milk. The best yogurt for people with lactose intolerance is a full-fat, probiotic yogurt that contains live bacterial cultures.
4. Low-lactose protein powders
Choosing a protein powder can be tricky for those who are lactose intolerant. Protein powders are usually made from the proteins in milk whey, the lactose-containing liquid part of milk.
Suggested read: Why cottage cheese is super healthy and nutritious
However, the amount of lactose found in whey protein powders can vary, depending on how the whey is processed.
There are three main types of whey protein powder:
- Whey concentrate: This contains up to 85% protein and a small amount of lactose.
- Whey isolate: This contains a higher protein concentration and less lactose than whey protein concentrate.
- Whey hydrolysate: This contains a similar amount of lactose as whey concentrate, but some of the proteins in this powder have already been partially broken down.
The best choice for lactose-sensitive individuals is whey isolate, which contains the lowest levels of lactose.
Nevertheless, the lactose content can vary considerably between brands, and most people have to experiment to see which protein powder brand works best for them.
Summary: Dairy protein powders have already removed some lactose. However, some types, such as whey isolates, have less lactose than others and may be a better choice for lactose-intolerant people.
Kefir is a fermented beverage traditionally made by adding “kefir grains” to animal milk.
Like yogurt, kefir grains contain live cultures of bacteria that help break down and digest the lactose in milk.
This means kefir may be better tolerated by people with lactose intolerance when consumed in moderate quantities.
An older 2003 study found that, compared with milk, fermented dairy products like yogurt or kefir could reduce symptoms of intolerance by 54–71%.
Summary: Kefir is a fermented milk beverage. Like yogurt, the bacteria in kefir break down lactose, making it more digestible.
Other low lactose options
Brands that make popular dairy products often offer low-lactose alternatives, created by mixing lactase directly into the product to break down the lactose before you’ve even taken a bite.
Brands with entire lines of products that are lactose-free include Lactaid and Green Valley Creamery.
Suggested read: Lactose intolerance: Causes, symptoms and treatment
Plant-based dairy alternatives marketed to vegans are also great lactose-free options.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not necessary for people with lactose intolerance to avoid all dairy products.
Some dairy products — such as the ones discussed in this article — are naturally low in lactose.
In moderate and controlled amounts, they’re usually well tolerated. Some people may find that some of the foods listed above are harder on their digestive systems than others.
Also, remember to be mindful of portion sizes and that more than one low-lactose food eaten together may add up to more lactose than your system can tolerate.
Through trial and error and moderation, you can create a list of low-lactose foods that are best for you.