In this article:
- Why so many people are sensitive to the sugar found in milk.
- How dairy products with their lactose cause digestive problems.
- The many foods and drinks that contain lactose and lactose free alternatives.
- How you can enjoy dairy products without the bloating and flatulence.
What Is Dairy Sensitivity?
Being sensitive to dairy and experiencing symptoms like bloating, intestinal cramps and bad gas usually starts with lactose.
Lactose is a type of disaccharide sugar found in cow’s milk and other milk products. It is made of glucose and galactose monosaccharides.
Lactose should be broken down in your upper intestine by the enzyme lactase. As infants, most of us produce a lot of lactase in our digestive systems and usually have no problems digesting milk.
As we get older though, usually around teenage years, the amount of the lactase enzyme that our bodies produce to break down lactose diminishes. This is quite normal, as milk is for babies and humans are the only animal that continues to try and drink it beyond infancy.
Dairy sensitivity due to lactose is a very common cause of gastrointestinal problems. It’s estimated that at least 75% of people in the USA have problems digesting dairy products. People of Asian or African-American background are even more likely to be lactose intolerant.
A person who is sensitive to the lactose in milk will often suffer with belly bloating, cramps and excessive flatulence after consuming dairy products, especially in larger amounts.
Just how badly dairy and its lactose affects you personally depends on just how much lactase enzyme your digestive system is still producing into adulthood.
As an example, some adults may still be able to drink a full glass of milk without any obvious side effects. Others may be able to have half a glass without obvious discomfort, but any more than that will trigger symptoms.
For even more lactose and dairy sensitive people, even a small amount of milk in their coffee or bite of ice cream can cause gastrointestinal distress.
At this level, a person is considered lactose and dairy intolerant. Virtually any milk based products or ingestion of lactose found in various other foods will quickly cause them problems.
Someone who is very lactose intolerant usually knows it well, as they experience bloating, stomach cramps and excessive intestinal gas soon after having milk or most other dairy based products.
More commonly though, people have varying degrees of dairy sensitivity, making it more difficult to pinpoint milk, and its difficult to digest lactose sugar, as the cause of their intestinal issues.
Unfortunately, despite the many digestive problems with lactose, food manufacturers seem to find milk sugar a cheap and useful ingredient, and it is added to a wide variety of processed foods and drinks as you’ll see ahead. But first, why exactly does lactose cause so much gas?
Why Do Dairy Products Give You Bad Gas?
When your body isn’t producing enough lactase enzyme, the milk sugar in any dairy products you drink or food you eat will pass through to your large intestine undigested.
Certain bacteria in your colon love lactose and will quickly go to work fermenting it. This process creates a lot of gas and, because of the sulfur compounds in dairy, it is usually much smellier flatulence than that produced by the fermentation of the galactans in beans.
These extra gases in your gastrointestinal tract can create all sorts of problems and discomfort, from bloating and intestinal cramps or spasms, to diarrhea when pressure from flatus gas interferes with water absorption in the colon, and of course excessive flatulence as it all eventually comes out.
In some respects, passing wind after drinking milk, and getting the bad gas out before it causes any more intestinal problems is the best thing that can happen. That’s not very comforting though if it comes on during a work meeting or out on a romantic evening.
This process usually happens fairly quickly and some people have bloating and cramps after consuming dairy products in as little as 15 to 20 minutes. If they are going to have digestive problems, most people will usually experience them within an hour of drinking milk if they have dairy sensitivity.
Which makes you wonder why, if lactose sugar is such an obvious cause of poor digestion and it happens so quickly, why are dairy products and other sources of lactose still so popular? Why haven’t got the message on a larger scale that milk and other dairy gives you gas?
It’s likely many people can get away with a small amount of dairy, perhaps the milk they have on breakfast cereal in the morning. But then, with their lactase enzyme stores depleted, any of the various other sources of lactose ahead have the potential to cause intestinal distress.
Since food products with lactose move through your digestive system much slower than liquid dairy products, it may be many hours before symptoms appear.
Someone who can have milk in the morning without obvious problems, but then ends up gassy in the evening from the lactose-rich lunch he ate, may never make the connection between the two.
Which Foods and Drinks Contain Lactose?
While milk and dairy products are the most obvious source of lactose, there are actually, due to food processing, now many other potential culprits of bad gas and other gastrointestinal problems caused by undigested milk sugar.
Just ahead is a list of different foods and drinks that contain lactose. You’ll definitely want to avoid the products on this high lactose list if you’re very dairy sensitive or intolerant.
The majority of us though, with varying levels of sensitivity to dairy and its milk sugar, would also do well to reduce our consumption of the following lactose-rich beverages and foods wherever possible.
A List of High Lactose Foods and Drinks
- All dairy milk, including skim milk which has even higher levels of milk sugar, but all milk from cows or goats will contain lactose in some of the highest levels.
- Dairy based protein powders made with whey are a concentrated source of lactose and cause flatulence problems for many people.
- Ice cream can sadly be particularly bad. Not only is it made from dairy milk, but manufacturers often sweeten it with added milk sugar or poorly absorbed fructose.
- Cheese will usually contain less milk sugar the harder it is. So hard aged cheeses, like parmesan, romano or aged cheddar, will have less lactose than softer cheeses like feta, ricotta or mozzarella. Processed cheese spreads with added lactose are especially bad for those with dairy sensitivity.
- Real yogurt should be lower in lactose as the beneficial bacteria breaks down the milk sugar. Unfortunately, what passes for yogurt in the supermarket now days is usually nothing more than thickened milk with added fructose. An unflavored traditional Greek or cultured yogurt will likely be much lower in lactose. Look in health food stores for these.
- Canned or packaged soup is a common but little-known source of lactose. Check labels for any dairy-based ingredients, but any cream-based soup will usually be full of lactose.
- Savory snacks often contain milk powder which again contains milk sugar and any cheese flavored products will usually be quite high in gas causing lactose.
- Sweets like cakes, puddings, cookies and particularly doughnuts are all potentially high sources of lactose. Milk chocolate can also be a problem for those sensitive to dairy (dark chocolate is much lower and healthier),
- Sauces and salad dressings like mayonnaise can all contain lactose. Check the labels for milk solids, milk powder, casein, anything starting with whey and obviously lactose itself.
- Processed breakfast cereals are often made with milk powder or milk solids, though this is a secondary problem if you’re already eating them with a big bowl of cow’s milk.
- Bread is another commonly food that can contain milk-based ingredients. The amount on its own may not cause bloating, but as you can see with all the different products containing lactose, it’s all more to add to that already fermenting in your lower intestine.
- Even manufactured meats like sausages, bologna and hot dogs can have lactose in them, as can breaded or coated meats. Both are worth avoiding if you are dairy intolerant.
- Pizza, with its combination of soft cheese, bread and processed meats, will often be a triple shot of lactose containing ingredients.
- Even birth control pills, headache tablets and some drugs and supplements contain milk sugar as an ingredient for some bizarre reason. Alone they are unlikely to have much of an effect, but if your body cannot produce any more of the lactase enzyme then it all adds up.
As you can see, it’s a long and extensive list of products that contain lactose.
If you’re reading food labels trying to avoid milk sugar you want to watch out for anything that says: milk powder, milk solids, milk protein, whey solids or protein, nonfat dried milk, casein, sodium caseinate and obviously lactose itself.
A much easier way is to make recipes from this highly recommended free paleo recipe book. All of the delicious meals in there are guaranteed dairy free, as well as sugar and gluten free so great for your digestive system.
Low Lactose and Dairy-Free Alternatives
- Almond milk, hazelnut milk, hemp milk, oat milk and rice milk are all commonly available now as more and more people look for dairy-free milk alternatives. Soy milk isn’t recommended due to it’s high galactan content and other questionable compounds.
- Both coconut water and coconut milk diluted with water make for delicious and healthy dairy-free milk alternatives.
- Hemp protein powder is a good replacement for high lactose whey protein powders.
- Dairy free ice cream is available, though watch out for added fructose. Coconut milk ice cream is particularly good if you can find it.
Cheese, Butter and Cream
- Hard, aged cheeses like parmesan, Swiss or cheddar are generally much lower in lactose than soft cheeses.
- Butter and high fat cream contain much less lactose than milk and shouldn’t cause problems for most people unless they are very dairy sensitive.
Other Lactose Free Alternatives
- Vegetable based soups like tomato generally don’t contain lactose but check the label.
- Nuts and seeds make a much healthier alternative to packaged snack foods that are often full of lactose.
- Dark chocolate is a healthy and lactose free treat and a great replacement for sugary sweets that usually contain both fructose and lactose. Look for 70% minimum cocoa solids, with higher being even better.
- Avoid cream based sauces and use tomato based alternatives. Olive oil, butter, balsamic vinegar and fresh guacamole are all good options.
- Switch from fattening breakfast cereals to satisfying eggs or avocados to start your day. This avocado omelette recipe combines both and is a delicious yet very healthy breakfast.
How to Drink Milk Without Bloating and Flatulence
If you really can’t bear the thought of a life without flavored milk, ice cream and camembert on crackers, there are lactase supplements that you can take to replace the digestive enzymes for milk sugar that your body is no longer making in large enough quantities.
Lactaid is the most well known of these, but these ones contain the same 9000 FCC units of lactase per capsule as the highest strength Lactaid. At 180 capsules compared to the usual 60 in Lactaid they are also about half the price and work just as well for me and many others in the reviews.
I take them at the same time as an occasional ice cream or pizza and there’s none of the usual bloating, tummy rumbling or gas.
It’s a good idea to take one with you if you think you could be having foods or drinks containing a lot of lactose. Always have them either just before or with your meal or milk based drink.
Beware of other cheaper brands of lactase enzymes that only contain 1000 or 2000 FCC units. This won’t be enough for all but the lowest of dairy sensitivities and definitely not enough if you are lactose intolerant.
Even if you don’t drink cow’s milk often, lactose is added to such a wide variety of processed foods these days that it’s difficult to avoid unless you’re actively looking for it.
If you experience abdominal bloating and cramps, excessive flatulence and other gastrointestinal problems regularly, then the lactose milk sugar should be considered a prime suspect.
- Reduce as many of the lactose containing foods on the above list as you can. Replace them with dairy and lactose-free alternatives and take note of any lessening of bloating and gas.
- For the times when you want to enjoy the occasional milkshake or ice cream without digestive issues, high potency lactase enzymes taken at the same time are the best solution for people with dairy sensitivity.
Photo credit: Simon D