Being lactose intolerant is not the end of the world. OK, maybe for a cheesemonger, but how often does that happen? An individual who is lactose intolerant cannot digest lactose, aka the naturally occurring disaccharide sugar found in milk.
Not being able to digest lactose adequately makes it uncomfortable for the person to consume dairy products such as ice cream, milk, or cheese. Ugh, cheese. That’s the real gut-wrenching truth. But don’t be so quick to rule out all cheese from your diet, fellow lactose intolerant people. There are actually 10 kinds of cheese you can eat. We spoke with Jennifer May, BHSc (Nut Med), founder and director of Sydney City Nutritionist and Food Intolerance Australia, to learn more about lactose intolerance and how to safely add cheese to your diet.
Why are some people sensitive to dairy?
As much as it may seem, being sensitive to dairy is not a punishment. It’s just how life unfolds for about 65% of the world’s adult population. That’s over half of the people on this planet! You’ll know if you’re lactose intolerant if you start to get symptoms of abdominal pain, nausea, bloating, gas, and diarrhea soon after eating dairy. But it’s always best to get a proper diagnosis from a medical professional before making assumptions. After all, dairy (especially milk) is an essential source of calcium and other nutrients. So why do these symptoms happen to some people and not others after consuming dairy?
“Lactase is the enzyme required for the breakdown of lactose. Most of us have sufficient amounts as infants due to the presence of lactose in mothers’ milk,” explains Jennifer. “However, it is normal for lactase to decline with age. By adulthood, numbers may have reduced to the level where digestive distress is experienced from the intake of high-lactose foods.”
Lactose intolerance can develop over time. It’s just your body’s natural way of saying “handle with care.” Your ethnicity might also have something to do with developing lactase deficiency, particularly if you have roots in Asia or Africa.
“Certain ethnicities have a higher likelihood of developing lactose intolerance. This mostly includes populations who did not traditionally consume unfermented sources, such as those of East Asian, African, Middle Eastern, Greek, Italian, or Aboriginal descent,” says Jennifer. “You may also develop lactase deficiency after gastroenteritis or parasitic infection. Although this would be temporary and can be resolved.”
10 ‘safe’ cheeses for lactose intolerant individuals
There are 10 types of cheese that are safe for lactose intolerant individuals to consume (in small portions). As a general rule of thumb, the fresher the cheese, the more lactose it contains. That means it’s safer to consume aged and hard cheeses. During the aging process, some lactose is separated and drained off with the whey, which reduces the lactose percentage.
“High-fat dairy is a good option because the fats slow the release of sugars, which can be a beneficial effect for those with reduced lactase enzyme release. The slower the release, the less absorbed and the more time your body has to produce the required enzyme. Fermentation of dairy is beneficial as the lactose is digested by the bacteria in the process,” says Jennifer.
Remember, lactose is the naturally occurring disaccharide sugar found in milk. Cheese with a sugar content of 5 grams per serving or higher is going to be difficult for someone with lactose intolerance to digest. You can find the lactose in cheese by looking at the lactose range (in percentage) or the grams of sugar under the Nutrition Facts label of the brand.
“Certain cheeses naturally have a lower lactose percentage,” explains Jennifer. “This includes hard and matured cheeses such as cheddar, Edam, Swiss, mozzarella, and brie,” explains Jennifer. “These cheeses contain no lactose and are typically well tolerated by people with lactose intolerance.”
Jennifer also notes that this is why aged hard cheeses are considered to be the best for those with lactose intolerance, particularly Parmesan. Cheeses such as Gouda are higher in fat and have a lower level of included lactose (0-2%), which may be released more slowly.
Below are 10 cheese with less than 5 grams of sugar per serving and less than a 3.5% lactose range, according to Steve Carper, author of Milk Is Not for Every Body: Living With Lactose Intolerance. Of course, don’t overdo it on these cheeses. Discomfort and sensitivity vary from person to person.
- Muenster: 0%-1.1% lactose range
- Camembert: 0%-1.8% lactose range
- Brie: 0%-2% lactose range
- Cheddar: 0%-2.1% lactose range
- Provolone: 0%-2.1% lactose range
- Gouda: 0%-2.2% lactose range
- Blue cheese: 0%-2.5% lactose range
- Mozzarella: 0%.0-3.1% lactose range
- Parmesan: 0%-3.2% lactose range
- Swiss cheese: 0%-3.4% lactose range
“To find your tolerated level, cut out all dairy until you are completely symptom-free,” suggests Jennifer. “Then reintroduce one at a time at just a teaspoon. Double the dose until you once again trigger symptoms — this is your trigger dose, be sure to consume less than this daily for best results.”
What types of cheese should lactose intolerant individuals totally avoid?
Fresh cheese or cheese with curds (pieces of curdled milk) have a high lactose percentage.
“Cream cheeses are the highest in lactose and most likely to trigger symptoms,” explains Jennifer. “The lactose from low-fat cheeses are absorbed more quickly, and therefore low-fat cheese may also trigger some sensitive people. Low-fat cream cheese is undoubtedly the worst.”
Other types of cheese to avoid:
- Ricotta: 0.2%-5.1% lactose range
- Colby: 1.6%-5.2% lactose range
- American: 1.6%-5.2% lactose range
Keep in mind that some people with lactase deficiency simply cannot tolerate any milk products without discomfort. Be cautious when consuming dairy products, and always consult with your nutritionist or doctor before making any food decisions you’re not sure about. There’s still dairy-free milk in the meantime.
A deeper dive — Related reading on the 101:
Our bodies truly are amazing — learn more about your gut and how to keep lactose intolerance at bay.
Luckily for lactose intolerant individuals, restaurants are slowly doing away with American cheese, thanks to Millennials.