When someone is lactose intolerant it means that they are unable to absorb lactose in dairy products due to a lactase deficiency. Lactase is an enzyme that splits the milk sugar lactose to produce glucose and galactose.
Sophie Medlin, a lecturer in nutrition and dietetics at King's College London, offers a simple explanation for how lactose intolerance occurs.
She wrote, "When we are babies, we all produce plenty of the lactase enzyme that allows us to absorb our mother’s milk. In populations where milk consumption has been historically low, such as Japan and China, most children will have stopped producing lactase soon after weaning and – producing almost entire populations that may be unable to absorb the lactose in milk – this we call 'lactose intolerance'."
If you are lactose intolerant, you may experience symptoms 30 minutes to two hours after consuming food or drinks that contain lactose. The most common symptoms include:
- Watery or acidic diarrhoea
- Stomach cramps and pain
- Stomach grumbling (borborygmi)
In young children, lactose intolerance can present with weight loss and failure to thrive.
4 alternatives to dairy
If you are lactose intolerant, there are some alternatives to dairy. These include:
1. Lactose and casein-free milk
Look for lactose-free cow’s milk, which contains a lactase enzyme that helps break down lactose into forms that lactose-intolerant people can digest.
2. Soya milk
This milk is made from soya beans and can have a chalky feel and tofu-like after taste. It is relatively low carb – if you need to keep an eye on your blood sugar levels, choose unsweetened soya milk, which has as little as 0.1g of carbs per 100ml.
3. Almond milk
This dairy-free milk is slightly sweet and has a mild almond flavour; unsweetened almond milk tastes a bit more nutty. Almond milk has around 42 to 105kJ per 100ml.
4. Goat’s milk
Goat’s milk is great in cereal, tea and coffee, and can be used for cooking and baking. It has a creamy texture with a slightly sweet and herby taste. Good news if you don’t mind the overpowering smell – goat’s milk is high in calcium, proteins, vitamins and minerals.
Consider this when buying milk alternatives
Added sugar: Always opt for the unsweetened varieties – sugar is often added to enhance the flavour and texture. Check the food label and avoid brands that list sugar as one of the first three ingredients.
Calcium: We know that cow’s milk is rich in calcium, which we need for strong bones. However, many non-dairy milks are fortified with calcium, so choose one that has at least 120mg per 100ml.
Vitamin B12: If you avoid animal products, you may risk a vitamin B12 deficiency. Opt for milk that is fortified with vitamin B12, which is necessary for a healthy brain and strong immune system.
Make your own dairy-free milk
According to Food24, it's fairly easy to make your own dairy-free milk:
Coconut milk: Blend one cup of unsweetened, dried coconut flakes with two cups of boiling water. Leave this mixture for five hours so the flavours can develop and then strain.
Rice milk: Boil one cup of brown rice with three cups of water, one teaspoon of cinnamon and one teaspoon of honey. When the rice is cooked, blend it with four cups of water and strain with a sieve.
Oat milk: Soak one cup of oats with three cups of water for eight hours. Blend this mixture with two cups of water, and add one teaspoon of salt and one teaspoon of honey. Blend until it is smooth and strain through a sieve.
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