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Lactose intolerance

Milch-und-MilchprodukteMany people struggle with unpleasant symptoms after consuming milk or milk products. They suffer from lactose intolerance.  This is due to the fact that their bodies are not able to process a certain component of milk - lactose. This results in unpleasant digestive problems such as abdominal pain, flatulence or diarrhoea.

Although lactose intolerance is not a disease, it can lead to some restrictions in everyday life. Restaurant visits, invitations to dinner and even grocery shopping can become a severe test, because lactose is hidden in many foods, even though it may not be expected at first glance. However, if you pay attention to a few things and change your diet accordingly, you can live very well with lactose intolerance.

In this article we would like to inform you about lactose intolerance: What are the causes, what symptoms do you experience, what diagnostic methods are there and what do you have to pay attention to in your diet.

What is lactose intolerance?

Lactose is another term for milk sugar which can be found in milk and dairy products. Lactose is chemically composed of two monosaccharides: galactose (mucilage sugar) and glucose (dextrose). In order for the body to be able to process milk sugar, it has to be broken down into its two components during digestion. This is why you need the enzyme lactase.

Lactase is a digestive enzyme produced by the body in the intestinal mucosa and is responsible for dividing milk sugar (lactose). Then, the two monosaccharides enter the blood via the intestinal mucosa and can be used as a source of energy.

People suffering from lactose intolerance either do not produce the enzyme lactase at all or only insufficiently. Consequently, lactose cannot be broken down into its two components and reaches the colon undigested, where it is processed by the local bacteria. This produces waste products such as gases and acids, which lead to the following complaints.

What complaints do you experience?

For people who suffer from lactose intolerance, experiencing the following symptoms of the gastrointestinal tract after consuming dairy products is typical:

  • stomach ache
  • feeling of fullness
  • flatulences
  • diarrhoea
  • nausea

These can be accompanied by unspecific complaints such as fatigue, exhaustion, dizziness or concentration difficulties.

The symptoms occur between 15 and 30 minutes, at the latest two hours after consuming dairy products. The intensity of the symptoms varies individually and depends on both the lactose content of the food consumed and the severity of the lactose intolerance.

Who is affected?

A distinction is made between primary and secondary lactose intolerance. The primary form occurs most frequently and is genetically determined. Infants (with a few exceptions) are still able to digest the lactose contained in breast milk without any problems - after all, it is the only source of energy. After weaning, the production of the enzyme lactase drops drastically. Therefore, the ability to digest lactose naturally decreases with age.

Secondary lactose intolerance occurs as a result of diseases and external factors: these include long-term use of antibiotics, chemotherapy or radiotherapy, chronic inflammation of the intestinal mucosa (e.g. Crohn's disease) or excessive alcohol consumption. The mucous membrane of the small intestine is affected and can no longer produce the enzyme lactase in sufficient amounts.

In Germany, about 10-20% of the population suffers from lactose intolerance. There are however strong regional differences: In Asia, Africa and South America lactose intolerance is the normal case.

How do I know I can't take lactose?

You are struggling with stomach ache, stomach ache, feeling of fullness, flatulence or nausea shortly after consuming milk or milk products? You may then suffer from lactose intolerance.

At first, you can do sort of a self-experiment: Try to avoid all products containing lactose for a while. You can find a list of these foods in the next paragraph "Lactose intolerance and nutrition". If you're getting better you may be suffering from lactose intolerance.

Nevertheless, in the next step you should consult a doctor in order to obtain an expert diagnosis. After all, the symptoms could be symptoms of other diseases or intolerances as well.  The most common method of diagnosing lactose intolerance is the H2 breath test. The detection of hydrogen in your breath indicates that your body cannot digest lactose properly. Other methods of testing are blood tests, biopsies or genetic tests.

Lactose intolerance and nutrition

The good news is that you can live very well with lactose intolerance. The way to being free of symptoms is to change your diet. The consumption of foods containing lactose should be avoided or at least severely restricted. Fortunately, it is often not necessary to completely renounce dairy products - however, the limit varies individually and must therefore be tested carefully (in consultation with your doctor). In general, you can remember that products with a lactose content of less than 0.1mg per 100g are lactose-free. Products labelled "may contain traces of milk" are also suitable for people with lactose intolerance, as they contain very small amounts of milk.  Below you will find an overview of various foods and their compatibility with lactose intolerance.

Milk and dairy products

The greatest care should be taken when consuming milk and dairy products, as they contain large amounts of lactose and are therefore the main cause for complaints.  These include whole milk, skimmed milk, cream, condensed milk, whey and whey products, butter and chocolate products. Today, supermarkets fortunately offer a wide range of alternatives to traditional dairy products: there is lactose-free milk, in which lactose has already been divided into its two components, as well as plant-based milk alternatives. These are produced on a soy, almond, rice, oat or coconut basis and therefore naturally contain no lactose.

Curdled milk products such as yoghurt, soured milk, buttermilk or sour cream also contain a lot of lactose, but are much more digestible. This is due to the fact that lactic acid bacteria convert lactose into lactic acid.

The digestibility of cheese depends on the degree of ripeness. The lactose content of cheese decreases over time as the lactose is converted into lactic acid during ripening. Usually, hard and semi-hard cheeses do not cause any discomfort, while soft and cream cheeses should be enjoyed more carefully. Pay attention to the carbohydrate information on the packaging: If a cheese contains 0g or <0.1g carbohydrates, this indicates that it is lactose-free.

Beware of hidden lactose in ready meals

There is also a group of foods that are naturally lactose-free but are artificially added with milk or milk sugar. This is because milk sugar is an extremely cheap ingredient and has several beneficial properties for the food industry: For example, it can be used as a binding agent or flavouring source and has a tanning effect. Particularly frequently affected by hidden lactose are baked goods, ready meals, frozen dishes, canned goods and soups, frozen vegetables, sausage products, ham, sauces and dressings. So always take a look at the list of ingredients.

Sweets and snacks

You should also be aware of lactose in chocolate, sweets or bars and have a critical look at them before consumption. Milk chocolate is often refined with milk and therefore intolerable, while dark chocolate tends to contain little or no lactose. However, there is a large selection of lactose-free chocolates available for all chocolate lovers to choose from. There may also be hidden lactose in other sweets and chips.

By the way: all foodloose nut bars are lactose-free by nature. They consist of nuts, dried fruits and spices and contain no fillers or hidden additives such as lactose. Our fruit gummy is also lactose-free, as it contains only plant-based ingredients such as fruit puree and fruit juice concentrate.


Photo credit: © PhotoSG / Fotolia

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