Many older Indians I know cannot digest regular milk. They get a lot of stomach pain/discomfort with regular cow’s milk. We get lactose-free milk for relatives who have problems digesting milk.
But then, one day we ran out of regular milk and the kids took a taste of lactose-free milk, and lo and behold, it tasted sweeter. That was puzzling!! It made me wonder if I can give the kids lactose-free milk? What’s lactose-free milk all about? Here’s what I found:
Lactose, Lactase: what is the difference?
Lactose is a sugar found in milk both human milk and cow’s milk. In cows’ milk, lactose makes up about 4-5% of the solids. Human milk is about 7-8% lactose. So, almost all babies (except for rare cases) should be able to digest milk. They digest the sugars in the milk using a special enzyme called Lactase.
A brief pause here:
Lactose (the sugar in the milk)
Sugars mostly end with -ose (glucose, fructose, sucrose, galactose etc)
Lactase (the enzyme)
Enzymes mostly end with -ase (lipase, amylase, maltase, etc)
After a child is weaned off of human milk, lactase production in the small intestine slows down. You see, we don’t need it quite as much after we become adults.
How is it that some people can digest/some cannot?
It is theorized that people in North America and Europe evolved with a special gene mutation to continue digesting lactose into adulthood. Imagine, you are stuck in 800 A.D. or earlier in severe winter in Europe. You could die of malnutrition during the cold months without access to plants.
So, those genes adjust and learn to digest the food that was available to them. But, gene mutations take time and many generations. However, if you have Asian gene lineage (like me) as you got older, your genes did not need to learn to digest milk, simply because there was other food available for it.
So, unless you have that gene mutation, once you become old, you don’t produce enough of the enzyme lactase to digest and break down the lactose. The milk you drink goes through your stomach and your small intestine with the lactose intact. When this happens, the undigested lactose moves into the large intestine.
Do we need milk as we get older (lactose-free or not)?
As a child, we drink milk to grow (as an efficient protein source). Milk provides substantial amounts of tryptophan which increases growth hormone secretion. There is scientific data that shows that children drinking animal-based milk are on average taller than children who don’t drink animal-based milk.
However, some of us are not children anymore. We are not in 10th century Europe either. We have access to plant foods all year long. This begets the question – are we trying to override our body’s wishes by drinking lactose-free milk? I am just asking the question for each of you to examine yourself. I don’t know the answer to this.
My personal experience: I love my splashes of milk in coffee/tea. I have toyed with many vegan milks in the past and have recently switched to oat milk, which I am starting to like, but I am not 100% there yet. You see, when you live as a family and you buy milk anyway for the kids, it becomes a little harder to stop grabbing that carton easily accessible in the fridge.
Milk is a source of protein, calcium, phosphorous etc. But, there are plant sources for each nutrient available. But, you may ask me “Swetha, what about bone health?” I am still reviewing the scientific journals for an answer…but, in the meanwhile, if you really want to enjoy naturally low-lactose dairy products, you have plenty of other options listed below.
You don’t have to be scared of all milk products, some are naturally lactose-free
If you split milk into its components, you get:
Milk = Fat (Butter, Cream) + Protein (cheese) + Whey (Water, Lactose, Minerals)
Milk Fat, like ghee, is lactose-free. So, even the most lactose -intolerant person should be able to have ghee. However, the split between protein and whey may not be as clean as the fat, since fat is hydrophobic. Hence, freshly made cheese like paneer may still carry some lactose; although some may get washed off in the whey.
There is one more method you can use to your advantage: Fermentation. Use the micro-organisms to do the work for you. The lacto-bacteria will split up the lactose outside before you put it in your mouth, thus helping your tummy.
So, here are some dairy products you can enjoy without worrying if you will end up gassy and uncomfortable.
- Ghee, Butter, Cream (Almost purely fat)
- Aged cheese, Yogurt, Kefir (The fermentation bacteria has already broken down the lactose for you)
So, yeah, you should be able to enjoy yogurt, your buttermilk and your ‘thair sadam’ and all the milk nutrition benefits without affecting your tummy because: Thank you bacteria cultures!!
Why is lactose-free milk sweeter?
For some reason, in my mind, when I heard lactose-free milk; I always thought it will taste less sweet. For e.g., you hear fat-free, and you think it is less creamy. But, in this case, it is the opposite. Lactose free milk is actually sweeter. Why?
1 cup of milk naturally has 12 grams of sugar. But since the sugar is in the form of lactose, it does not hit your tongue as sweet. Lactose is a disaccharide, i.e. it is made of 2 sugars – one glucose and one galactose.
Look at the table below. Sucrose (regular white sugar) has a relative sweetness of 1.00, while lactose has 0.16.
|Relative Sugar Sweetness Scale|
But in lactose-free milk, you add lactase enzyme externally to turn the lactose into glucose and galactose, which are individually sweeter than lactose. You can taste the sweetness of these simple sugars on your tongue more.
However, some brands feel like the customers may not like the additional sweetness and make them in such a way (UHT-Ultra High Pasteurization) to filter out the sweetness. I don’t know which person does not like sweet milk, but apparently, they exist….go, figure!!
Any other ways to make your milk lactose free?
Sometimes you may not access to lactose-free milk. It is also expensive. There is another option…Instead of getting the company to make it for you, you can get the lactase enzyme in a powder or liquid form. Add it to your milk at home, wait for a few hours for the enzyme to work and then use your milk.
There are also pills/tablets you can take when you know in advance, say…you have a pizza day at the office and you don’t want to make a big deal about not eating dairy. The tablets will provide the enzyme for your body externally. I have no experience with any of these products, so I can’t personally comment on their effectiveness.
After reviewing the information, I am now comfortable with using lactose-free milk at home. I like its naturally sweet taste. But like any food item – I think it is always better not to overindulge.
What about you? Have you tried lactose-free milk? Do you like it? Do you feel we need milk after we grow old? Share your opinion below. I look forward to hearing from you.
Amazon Affliate Links