Serious Cheese: Part Two in the Adventures of Lactose Intolerance

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"On a couple of occasions I've been bold enough to try a bowl of cereal with one-percent milk."

20090616-cryingcheese.jpgI have been humbled, surprised, and, frankly, a bit overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and advice in response to my post last week about my lactose intolerance discovery. You have shared many ideas, from the practical to the fanciful.

Probably the best advice I received was to make an appointment with my doctor to get tested. Lots of folks said that gallbladder problems, dairy allergies, and celiac disease can all produce symptoms similar to lactose intolerance. I have heeded this advice and will be seeing my doctor soon. I have a feeling he'll send me straight to a gastroenterologist, so I may not have any official updates here for a while, though I do think this is probably the best and safest approach.

But back to my adventures, which is why, I think, you are all tuning in. Apparently lactose intolerance (or whatever is ailing me) isn't so black-or-white. Over the past week I have been experimenting in a somewhat haphazard way with dairy of different stripes.

I was able to eat, without issue, a half-glass of one-percent milk, a small cup of yogurt, and a delicious Queso Blanco Torta from Cinco de Mayo, my local Mexican restaurant.

Let's start with the milk.

On a couple of occasions I've been bold enough to try a bowl of cereal with one-percent milk. Both times I felt nauseous after the meal, but of course nausea can be highly psychosomatic. Neither experiment led to a full-fledged attack, however, which I took as a good sign.

I didn't measure the amount of milk I used each time, but I would guess that I had about 4 ounces, which would equal 5.5 grams of lactose according to the chart on this page from the NIH. So far so good. (By the way, if you're curious, the cereal was Cinnamon Toast Crunch, a guilty pleasure I indulge in whenever our 87-year-old grandmother visits. It's her favorite cereal.)

A couple of days later, I had a 6-ounce cup serving of whole milk Stonyfield Farm Chocolate Underground yogurt (that stuff is really tasty). I had always thought that yogurt was largely lactose-free, due to the activity of lactose-digesting bacteria present in the product. But according to that same chart from the NIH, I consumed about 3.75 grams of lactose in this yogurt. And again, no reaction.

At this point I felt pretty comfortable trying out some cheese.

I wasn't going to overdose on Ukrainian food like I did the last time I had an attack, but I was feeling pretty confident. I probably should have started with a well-aged Parmigiano-Reggiano, which has very little lactose left in it after all that aging, but I like to live dangerously. So my wife and I ordered in a couple of queso tortas from Cinco de Mayo.

These sandwiches start with a toasted and buttered white roll, and are filled with thinly-sliced queso blanco, lettuce, pickled jalapeños, avocado, black beans, and mayo. Something about the creaminess of the avocado and the mayo countering the saltiness of the queso blanco—with the tangy spiciness of the jalapeños cutting through it all—make this sandwich a real marvel. And although I was nervous about trying such a young cheese as queso blanco (young cheeses tend to have more lactose since the bacteria in the cheese haven't had time to digest the lactose), I'm happy to report that I had no issues after this.

So where do we go from here?

Apart from visiting the doctor and getting tested for things that might be more serious, I guess I'll start being a little more bold. I'm going to try a bunch more cheeses (since I would prefer a hunk of cheese to a glass of milk any day), and see what happens. Of course I will include my updates here.

I also plan to seek out and interview some lactose intolerance experts, perhaps a gastroenterologist or nutritionist (if anyone has any good leads, let me know). Judging from the comments on my last post, and from some preliminary investigation online, it seems there are a lot of different ideas about the causes and cures of the ailment, and it would be good to do a post here with expert advice that separates myth from fact.

I'm also very interested to hear from the Serious Eats community about your experimental methodologies with regards to lactose intolerance. It seems that symptoms vary widely among individuals, and everyone has different ways of investigating which products affect them, and which are tolerable. So please share your stories!