Everything you need to know about lactose and lactose intolerance

Knowledge of how one’s body reacts to a certain type of food in a certain way is in many aspects essential to each person. One of the most common ingredients the body is most likely to have a reaction to is lactose with the corresponding reaction known as lactose intolerance. We can see more and more food packages being marketed as dairy or lactose-free, however, it’s not exactly common knowledge why the body is sometimes sensitive to lactose consumption and who should avoid it.

What is lactose?

Lactose is a carbohydrate which can be found naturally in all types of milk, including milk from humans. It is used now in the food industry as an ingredient in processed foods, such as chocolate, cheese or yogurt.

An interesting fact: only humans developed/evolved the ability to digest lactose as adults.

What is lactose intolerance?

Lactose intolerance is quite simply the inability to digest lactose. In order for it to be digested properly, lactose must be broken down in the intestines by the lactase enzyme into two distinct compounds: glucose and galactose.

The majority of infants release lactase for a certain amount of time. However, they lose the ability to digest lactose after weaning. This can only mean one thing: milk is not a natural food for humans. The clearest indicator of that is the fact that we lose the ability to digest it properly once we turn to a regular diet.

Lactose intolerance occurs in 90-100% of Asians, 60-70% of Africans and 10% of Caucasians. Generally, the activity of the lactase enzyme was sustained only in a majority of adults who had their origins in Northern Europe or in some Mediterranean populations. Statistically, about 75% of all humans born lose their lactase activity after weaning.

This means that being lactose intolerant would be the “norm”, especially in cultures that haven’t had regular milk consumption for a long time. If you happen to be lactose intolerant, there’s no need to force yourself to drink milk. It has been proven that milk doesn’t offer any nutrients which you couldn’t otherwise find in any other foods.

What are the symptoms?

The most common symptoms of lactose intolerance are cramps, nausea, gas, bloating and diarrhea. If you start experiencing any of these symptoms within half an hour to 2 hours after drinking milk or any type of dairy products, you should consult with your doctor and make the necessary checks to see if you suffer from lactose intolerance.

The severity of the symptoms will vary depending on how much lactose the individual can tolerate. One person may have a reaction to even the smallest amount of foods that contain lactose, while others will be able to eat larger amounts before they feel anything. Do a little experiment on yourself and see if any of your symptoms disappear, when you stop eating lactose-containing foods.

    Unusual sources of lactose

  1. Medications: As an ingredient, lactose can quite often be found in both prescription and over the counter medications. It can also be found in some birth control pill. The reason why it’s there is to improve the bio-availability of the drug.
  2. Processed grains: Lactose is sometimes used as an ingredient in processed grains because it serves as a cheaper substitute for sugar. The ones you should especially avoid are pancake mixes, waffles, bread, cookies, cereals, and granola bars.
  3. Processed meats: This might come as a complete surprise since it’s probably the last thing you would expect to find lactose in. Avoid processed meats, such as bacon, hot dogs, sausages and cold cuts and consume kosher products instead or popular brands with a lactose-free label.
  4. Instant meals and coffee: The main thing that makes these products instant and easily soluble is the lactose in them. It’s also the lactose which gives instant drinks and meals their flavor and texture.
  5. Margarine: The worst mistake you could do is replace butter with margarine. The majority of margarines contain a large amount of lactose because it helps the margarine taste more like butter. Always check the ingredient list when you buy one.

Foods that are high in lactose: milk and all kinds of milk-based drinks, whipping and coffee cream, ice cream, ice milk, sorbet, cheese, butter, custards, puddings, creamy sauces, creamy soups and generally all types of dairy products.

How would you know if a food contains lactose?

Well, the first thing you need to do is check the nutrition label and the list of ingredients. Next, look through all the products in your kitchen and check the ingredient list on each of them. This way, you will already have an idea of what you need to look for when going to the market.

Lactose doesn’t need to appear in the list in order for it to be there. It often comes with other ingredients that are listed such as whey, casein, milk solids, milk byproducts, dry milk powder, dry milk solids, nougat or non-fat dry milk.

How do you treat it?

Unlike other conditions, this one’s pretty easy to treat. You control the symptoms by making changes in your diet. Simply avoid the foods that have lactose. People who have lactose intolerance can usually find foods which contain small amounts of lactose which will not cause any symptoms. However, since each person is different, it’s best that you listen to your body.

If you’re tolerant to lactose and enjoy dairy products, feel free to consume them. There’s no need to avoid, just because there are products which are lactose-free.

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