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Lactose – The Full Story

65 percent of all adult humans in the world are lactose intolerant. For the other 35 percent the ability to tolerate lactose (called lactose persistence because the ability persists into adulthood) is between 15 to 54 percent in Eastern and Southern Europe, 62 and 86 percent in in central and western Europe and more than 90 percent in the British Isles and Scandinavia. The two other areas with lactose persistence are the Maasai people in Eastern Africa and the Fulani in central and west Africa. All of us have a long history of farming cattle. So us adult Brits have an over 9 in 10 chance of being able to digest lactose.

Maasai herdsman

All human infants are obviously lactose tolerant in order to feed on breast milk but then become increasingly intolerant after weaning and transition to adulthood.

Lactose intolerance is not an allergy – it’s an intolerance. An allergy is an adverse immune response which sometimes happens in response to the protein in milk which can affect between 2 and 3 percent of infants.

Cheese has more or less the same nutritional makeup as milk but has much of the lactose removed. Most of the lactose goes out with the whey which is the liquid part of milk left after milk has been curdled and strained in the production of cheese.

Fulani woman with milk

Lactose levels in milk are around 5 percent and is only 0.07 percent in Cheddar or Parmesan. That is a 70 fold reduction. The softer the cheese the more lactose it will contain. Ricotta can contain 3 percent lactose. Sensitivities to lactose vary so a lot of people who can’t tolerate milk can eat cheese, especially the harder ones. Butter also has very low lactose.

Yoghurt is also easier to digest than milk. The best yogurt for people with lactose intolerance is a full-fat, probiotic yogurt containing live bacterial cultures. The live bacteria helps break down lactose so your body has less to process on its own.

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 an even better choice for people with lactose intolerance 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.