What is lactose in? Useful tips to replace lactose!

What is lactose in
What is lactose in

Lactose is the main sugar in the breast milk of mammals such as humans and cows. That is why we only find lactose in dairy products. To digest this sugar you need an enzyme, lactase. People who do not make enough of this enzyme have trouble digesting it: we call this lactose intolerance. Fortunately, you don’t always have to avoid all dairy right away! If you do it smartly, you can still enjoy your favorite milk or cheese now and then without any problems. What is lactose in and how can you replace it?

What is Lactose in?

Few people know that lactose – just like glucose and fructose – is a sugar. In this case, it is specifically the sugar that you find in milk.

Most people have heard of fast sugars and slow sugars. Fast sugars, such as glucose, fructose and galactose, consist of only one sugar particle and therefore get wrong quickly and easily. Lactose is a slightly slower sugar because it is made up of a compound of glucose and galactose.

That does not mean that it is a slow sugar. Real complex slow sugars contain at least ten and sometimes thousands of compounds of simple sugars.

But it does mean that your body has to put in that little bit more effort to digest it compared to glucose. The body needs the enzyme lactase for digestion, which is normally produced in the intestinal wall. This enzyme breaks down the lactose in our diet into glucose and galactose.

What is lactose in? 

Lactose occurs exclusively in mammalian breast milk. It is therefore not in other foods such as vegetables, fruit or meat. In the Netherlands, however, we consume a lot of cow’s milk and all kinds of dairy. Just think about:

  • Cow’s milk, goat’s milk, sheep’s milk
  • Soft goat cheese and sheep cheese
  • Processed cheese, cheese spread
  • Kefir
  • Custard and porridge

With dairy products such as quark, yogurt and buttermilk, part of the milk sugar is already converted by all kinds of bacteria during the preparation process. The concentration is therefore much lower. Due to the long ripening process, hard cheese such as Gouda cheese also contains almost no lactose. This is completely broken down.

What is Lactose Intolerance? 

An intolerance is a hypersensitivity reaction and should not be confused with an allergy. When not enough lactase is produced for the split into glucose and galactose, this has a negative effect on digestion. Ultimately, the bacteria in the intestines will break it down. But this has the side effect of gas and flatulence, stomach pain, diarrhea or constipation.

In northwestern Europe, intolerance occurs in about 5% of the population. This percentage is much higher in Southern Europe, Asia and Africa: the lack of lactase is genetically determined here.

Usually, the symptoms of intolerance do not appear until after a few years. Children can become intolerant after the age of five, but this can still happen in young adults around the age of 20. The amount of lactase then decreases in the intestines and digestion is much more difficult. Because it is not an allergy, most people can still tolerate a small amount without complaints.

Another cause of lactose intolerance can be an intestinal infection. A condition such as celiac disease or Crohn’s disease damages the intestinal wall, temporarily disrupting the production of lactase. In this case, the lactose intolerance can be temporary.

Lactose intolerance versus a cow’s milk allergy

Lactose intolerance is not the same as a cow’s milk allergy. With lactose intolerance, the body cannot digest the milk sugar properly. With a cow’s milk allergy, the body reacts allergic to the proteins in milk.

Even a small amount can cause severe reactions if you are allergic. These reactions are not limited to the intestines. Often skin problems such as eczema or hives occur. Someone with a cow’s milk allergy will therefore have to avoid dairy completely.

Does lactose belong in our diet? 

Worldwide, 70% of the population has lactose intolerance. You can therefore also ask yourself this is not the norm rather than the exception. From an evolutionary point of view, milk and lactose were developed only to grow babies. After a few years, these babies can no longer tolerate breast milk and must therefore start eating solid food.

We have probably become very dependent on dairy in Northern and Western Europe because of the cold climate. Our body has adapted to this by continuing to produce lactase.

In other parts of the world, evolution was different. If you cannot tolerate cow’s milk as an adult, then you do not have to think that there is something wrong with you. You should actually look at it the other way around. Anyone who can still tolerate dairy products as an adult is just lucky.

How can I replace lactose? 

Are you lactose intolerant? Then it is wise to eat less lactose: this prevents all kinds of unpleasant stomach complaints. Yet even with an intolerance, it is often not necessary to eliminate all milk and dairy from your diet. Most people can still tolerate 12-24 grams per day, preferably spread over different eating times. However, this differs from person to person, so it is also a matter of experimentation!

Do you want to eat less or no lactose at all? The following tips ensure that you can easily replace lactose with alternatives and that your diet is limited as little as possible.

  • Lactose-free milk. Here the milk sugar has been filtered out at the factory. This way you can still consume milk and enjoy the benefits of vitamin D, calcium and vitamin B12.
  • Vegetable alternatives. You can use vegetable milk in any recipe to replace cow’s milk. Just like in cow’s milk, vitamins and minerals are also added. Some examples are almond milk, oat milk, rice milk and coconut milk. There is also vegetable yogurt, quark and even cheese.
  • Lactase pills. You can already guess. These are pills with lactase that you can take when you eat a lot of dairy. They are available in various strengths, indicated by the FCC unit. Most capsules contain about 3000 FCC or 5000 FCC lactase. Do consult your doctor before you start with these types of pills.


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