There is often confusion as to what you should avoid if you think you are intolerant to dairy. For some, the inability to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk, is the main cause of dairy intolerance. This causes symptoms such as stomach cramps, diarrhoea and bloating. For others, the main proteins found in cow’s milk, including casein, whey and albumin can cause a reaction.
Dairy intolerance should not be confused with cow’s milk allergy. In this case, even a trace amount of milk-containing products can cause an instant immune response and can lead to severe symptoms of wheezing, itching, vomiting or a rash.
When my son was a baby, it was clear that he could not tolerate milk. I won’t go in to details, but if I were to use the words ‘projectile’ and ‘explosion’ you might get the general idea. When it didn’t look as though it was something he was going to grow out of, I took action to find out what the problem might be.
I first took him off cow’s milk and tried goat’s milk instead. The symptoms reduced slightly, but they didn’t clear up, so I tried him on lactose free milk instead. This really helped, but it didn’t fully clear up the problem. That’s when I realised he needed to not only avoid lactose, but cow’s milk protein as well.
My son does not produce the enzyme, lactase, which is needed to digest lactose in the body. For him, even a small amount of lactose seems to cause a problem. Secondary to this, is his intolerance to cow’s milk and also to gluten and wheat.
Not all dairy intolerant individuals suffer to the same extent though. If you cannot tolerate lactose, you can buy a range of lactose free dairy products, which are basically cow’s milk with the lactase enzyme added. These products look, taste and behave in the same way that ordinary cow’s milk products do.
Others find they can tolerate a small amount of lactose and manage on lower lactose products such as those made with goat’s milk. Yoghurt contains live cultures that breakdown lactose to produce lactic acid. This gives the yoghurt it’s sour flavour, however, not all of the lactose is broken down, so whilst some individuals could tolerate a small amount of yoghurt, others would have to completely avoid.
The same goes with cheeses. Fermented, natural and aged cheeses such as Swiss, parmesan and blue cheese, typically contain trace amounts of lactose. Similarly, fresh, unripened cheese, such as ricotta and mozzarella contain low levels of lactose. Look at the amount of sugar or carbohydrate on the nutrition information. If it’s around 5 grams per serving or less, you may find you can tolerate small amounts.
Although many find their symptoms improve when staying off cow’s milk, it’s important to know that all milk produced by mammals contains lactose in varying degrees. Unfortunately goat’s milk also contains similar proteins to cow’s milk, so it is not necessarily an alternative option.
So what do you do if you think you need to avoid dairy?
First of all, consult your GP for advice. If he or she suspects a dairy intolerance, they will advise you of the best course of action. In the meantime, keep a food and symptoms diary as a record to take to your doctor. It will help to identify what foods may be causing you problems.
Remember that everybody is different and some can tolerate a small amount of lactose where others have to avoid completely. For some, even lactose free products, which may contain traces of lactose, are best avoided. You will get to know what you need to avoid to keep your symptoms clear.
If avoiding milk and dairy products completely, look at increasing the level of calcium-containing foods in your diet. This means including green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, spinach and kale, along with seafood and tinned fish, such as tuna, salmon and sardines. Fresh sardines, eaten along with the soft bones, is an excellent source of calcium.
Alternative sources of milk include almond, rice, oat and soya milk. Some varieties contain added calcium, but beware of other added ingredients such as sugars when considering an overall healthy diet. Oat milk is not necessarily made with gluten free oats, so should be avoided if you suffer with gluten sensitivities too.
Other foods that are fortified with calcium include breakfast cereals.
I cannot put hand on heart and say that I have found a non-dairy alternative to cheese that I like. Most are soya-based and have a strong flavour and unique taste all of their own, which I guess is an acquired taste, but not one that I have grown accustomed to. Violife, is slightly better and you can also melt it, although it reminds me of melted cheese slices in the way it sticks to the roof of your mouth. Dairy free foods, unfortunately, still have a long way to go.