Say Cheese! Even If You’re Lactose Intolerant
All dairy was not created equal. (Cheese is better.)
Can’t eat dairy? You’re not alone. In fact, according to a recent review published in Nutrients by Andrew Szilagyi and Norma Ishayek, somewhere between two thirds and three quarters of the world is lactose intolerant. If you don’t have any issues with dairy consumption, count yourself as one of the lucky few. So you’re likely lactose intolerant, but does that mean you shouldn’t consume any dairy? More important, you’re surely wondering: “What about cheese?” Don’t worry! Not only can you likely enjoy some dairy, but cheese is likely your best option.
Warning: Nerdy science ahead to explain why you, a lactose intolerant person, can eat cheese.
Lactose intolerance is the lack of sufficient amounts of the enzyme, lactase. Lactase breaks down lactose, which is the sugar in milk. Lactose is a disaccharide, a fancy chemistry way of saying it’s two sugars stuck together. Lactase breaks the disaccharide into a monosaccharide, or single sugar that your body can use for energy, among other things (like candy!). But if your body doesn’t have enough lactase enzyme to break down those sugars, the bacteria that live in your intestines (gross, but they’re good ones) will ferment the sugars, causing pain and some other unpleasant symptoms.
Luckily for you, cheese is already fermented, meaning those sugars your body would painfully ferment, are already taken care of. In order to make cheese and to coagulate the curds, lactose sugars are converted into lactic acid. This starts to transform milk from a liquid to a solid. It also means that necessarily, all cheese contains less lactose than milk. So thank cheesemakers because not only do they transform milk into the most delicious food, but they do the work your body can’t do!
But What Cheeses to Choose?
Cheese is a safer bet than milk for sure, but not all cheeses contain the same amount of lactose. So how can you be sure which ones have the least? There are two main factors: how hard a cheese is and what type of milk it’s made from:
How hard a cheese is, or its moisture content, matters the most. There are two reasons for this. First, in an aged cheese, more cultures are used to convert the lactose into lactic acid, whereas in a fresh cheese such as Queso Fresco, there may be little to no added cultures, leaving a fair amount of residual lactose. The fermentation process will convert a lot of lactose into lactic acid, but sometimes there is lactose leftover. Much of the residual lactose dissolves into the whey, or water that’s drained off to make cheese. A cheese that is fresh and young still has a lot of moisture, meaning that it retains the lactose-retaining whey. In an aged cheese more whey is drained off, and therefore more dissolved lactose is drained off with it. As a cheese is aged longer, more moisture and lactose drain off, and any lactose that isn’t lost through the whey continues to be converted by cheese cultures into lactic acid. A firm, crumbly, aged cheese like a Clothbound Cheddar or Aged Gouda will contain little to no lactose. Parmigiano-Reggiano is considered lactose free.
The lactose content of the milk used for cheesemaking also matters, although not as much. While it’s not as determinative as aging, were you to make three cheeses the exact same way, one with cow’s milk, one with sheep’s milk, and one with goat’s milk, you’d have three cheeses with different lactose content. In general, cow’s milk contains the most lactose and goat’s milk contains the least, with sheep’s milk somewhere in the middle, although this can be breed dependent. But when in doubt, if you’re going for a fresh cheese which is going to be higher in lactose anyway, try to stick to goat’s milk cheese. Fortunately, many traditional fresh cheeses are made from goat’s milk and fresh chèvre is delicious! Just keep in mind that fresh cheese will have the highest lactose content across all cheese styles, but if you’re determined to enjoy some, then stick to goat. Goat’s milk is also made up of smaller particles: the fat and protein molecules are smallest in goat’s milk, so your body digests goat’s milk 20% faster than it does cow’s milk. This has nothing to do with lactose, but sometimes it’s easy to confuse lactose intolerance with general difficulties digesting dairy.
Cheese Enjoyment Game Plan
If you’re at the grocery store, this should be easy. Grocery labels require certain nutritional values to be printed, and one of those is sugars. And guess what? The sugars in cheese are lactose. If the label says zero sugar, then you can be assured it’s a lactose-free cheese. According to the aforementioned review, most people with lactose intolerance can consume up to 12-15 grams of lactose per day. Most cheeses contain less than one gram of lactose per ounce, so even if you were to eat a whole pound of cheese a day (that’s a lot, but you do you!), you will probably only consume about 2 grams of lactose.
If you’re visiting Tria, we always have something for you to enjoy. Check out the Stoic category on our cheese menu, where you’ll find primarily aged and firm cheeses, often 4-12+ months in age, which implies almost no lactose. Even the Approachable category cheeses will be semi-firm and generally aged 2-4 months, meaning little to no lactose is likely. If you’re unsure, ask your server about the texture of the cheese; a firmer, dryer texture is a great indicator. On the Tria menu now, we recommend Nutcracker from Yellow Springs Farm, which is a goat cheese aged about 3+ months and Mrs. Quicke’s Cheddar, a traditional British clothbound cheddar aged 1+ year. Our cheese portions at Tria run on the generous side (more cheese = better cheese), but even so, if you order both of these on the board and don’t share (no judgement!) you’ll almost certainly consume less than a gram of lactose.
Our neighbors at Di Brunos will give you excellent advice at their cheese case, but some pregame suggestions include locally made St. Malachi from our friends at The Farm at Doe Run in Coatesville or Dutch Brabander Goat Gouda.
Anecdotally, I did a genetic test that tells me I’m lacking the necessary lactase enzyme to process dairy, but I am the Fromager at Tria (aka Cheese Queen) and you bet I eat my weight in cheese regularly. So fear not. Try aged cheeses. Try goat cheeses. Try aged goat cheeses! (Keep an eye out for Aged Goat Gouda that rotates onto the Tria menu.) Proceed with caution but enjoy. Above all, listen to your body. Your dairy dream is possible even if you’re lactose intolerant.
Note: This is not medical advice. Please consult a medical professional before altering your diet.
Claire Adler, Tria Fromager