The Health News Digest is running an informative piece this week on lactose intolerance. According to the article, an estimated 30-50 million Americans (or about 10 to 15 percent of the population) may experience the characteristic symptoms of lactose intolerance. The symptoms are caused by the lack of the enzyme lactase, which breaks down lactose, or milk sugar, into the more digestible simple sugars glucose and galactose. On the flip side you have Jeffrey Steingarten, "the Man Who Ate Everything," who claims that lactose intolerance is an overblown contrivance of a nation of deluded and finicky eaters. Perhaps the truth, as is the case with many things, lies somewhere in the middle?
In most aged cheeses, lactose is largely absent. Most of it is carried off in the whey that is separated out during the cheesemaking process. Following removal of the whey, whatever small amount of lactose is left in the cheese is then consumed over the course of aging by active bacterial cultures and converted to the more digestible lactic acid. Therefore cheeses that are young and have a high water content such as Cottage Cheese or Ricotta will consequently have more lactose than more firm, older cheeses like Gruyère or Parmigiano-Reggiano. Yogurt is also quite digestible, since it is produced with lactic-acid producing bacteria similar to those in cheese.
Of course, lactose intolerance falls on a spectrum for many people—some people are okay with one or two glasses of milk while others feel symptoms even with hard cheeses. Where do you fall on the spectrum of intolerance?
About the author: Jamie Forrest publishes Curdnerds.com from his apartment in Brooklyn, New York, where he lives with his wife, his daughter, and his cheese.