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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Cheese and Lactose

Lately it seems as if I've found at least one anti-food ailment crusader spreading his or her whine about cheese across the internet. Today's was Jay Rayner's I refuse to tolerate food intolerances on The Guardian's food page.

I suspect the vast majority of coeliacs are actually attention-seeking frauds, as with so many of the people claiming food intolerances and allergies. How many times have you heard someone claim at dinner that they couldn't eat cheese because they are 'lactose intolerant'? When, as the great American food writer Jeffrey Steingarten has pointed out, there is no lactose in cheese. The very process of cheese making removes the lactose.

I don't know who Jeffrey Steingarten is because I avoid food writers as assiduously as Rayner avoids fussy eaters, at least fussy eaters who aren't his type of fussy eater. I bet Rayner can be a terror at a dinner, sneering at the arugula or scorning the foie gras or smiling as a truffle he had nosed out of the ground earlier now appears shredded delicately over a quail's egg.

I do know that Steingarten is wrong. Not as wrong as Rayner would have him, however, but still wrong. Since unlike Rayner I do research everything I write, I found Steingarten's original statement. It's from his book The Man Who Ate Everything: And Other Gastronomic Feats, Disputes, and Pleasurable Pursuits.

I know several people who have given up cheese to avoid lactose. But fermented cheeses contain no lactose! Lactose is the sugar found in milk; 98 percent of it is drained off with the whey (cheese is made from the curds), and the other 2 percent is quickly consumed by lactic-acid bacteria in the act of fermentation.

It's true that most cheese comes from the protein-heavy curds after the lactose-laden whey is drained off. The process of aging cheese yields a hard cheese that normally has much of its lactose removed. So much so that a few cheese makers can advertise a true milk-based lactose free cheese. See the examples on my Reduced-Lactose Milk Products page on my Product Clearinghouse site.

There's a contradiction between all cheese being lactose free and only a very few making this a selling point by billing themselves as such. The reason is simple. Most cheeses are not lactose free.

(I need to make a quick side point here. Several brands of cheese that I don't list on my Reduced-Lactose page claim on their labels that they have 0 grams of lactose per serving. That claim is true but possibly misleading. U.S. law allows manufacturers to claim 0 grams of an item by rounding down from an actual value of less than 0.5 grams per serving. That doesn't sound like much. However, a serving of cheese in those cases is 1 ounce or 28 grams. If you assume that 0.4 grams of lactose remain, the lactose percentage of the serving is 1.4%. Not large, but not negligible either. How do I know that the actual amount is not really 0.3, 0.2, or 0.1 g per serving? I don't. I wish I did, but that specific number is not going to be made available to me or you or any consumer. I'm positive that the actual number is not 0.0. That's because another U.S. government regulation mandates that any food on whose package appears the words lactose free must be completely lactose free. If they could say it they would. It would be great for sales. Since they don't...)

Now, four reasons why the claim that all cheese is lactose free is wrong.

1) Not all cheese are made from curds. There are whey-based cheeses, the most familiar of which is ricotta, brown Norwegian cheeses like brunost, and German quarg. All are soft cheeses and are likely to have a lactose percentage approaching those of some liquid milks.

2) Some cheeses are not aged or hardened and produce familiar smooth or curdish cottage cheese, and cream cheese in the U.S. and has variants as paneer in India and Queso Blanco in Mexico. All of these soft cheeses normally have 3-4% lactose contents.

3) Even hard, aged cheeses show remarkable variation in lactose percentage when formally tested. I have a page I call the Really BIG List of Lactose Percentages in the Dairy Facts section of my web site. Cheese ranges were taken from Samuel A. Matz: Ingredients for Bakers, McAllen, TX: Pan-Tech International, 1987. A few averages I couldn't find in Metz appeared in Newer Knowledge of Milk and Other Fluid Dairy Products, rev. ed., National Dairy Council: 1993. As you can see for yourself, virtually every cheese shows a range of lactose from 0.0% up to a remarkable 5.2%, as high as the whey cheese ricotta.

Mozzarella, the pizza cheese often eaten in mass quantities, shows a range of 0.0-3.1% lactose. Some quick Googling found that the standard cheese pizza slice has 12-13 g of protein. Multiplying by 8 slices yields a minimum of 100 grams of cheese, maybe not far from a quarter pound if a generous hand was used, leading to the inescapable conclusion that a large pizza contains about 3 grams of lactose. I won't overstate that quantity, but I will remind people that cheese is also often added to the sauce and butter to the dough. 3 grams of cheese can cause someone sensitive to lactose to have a sore and mightily complaining intestinal track for the rest of the evening.

4) Nor does that eliminate all the cheesy comestibles. Americans have cheese food. We are entering a a realm that reinvents foods the way the witness protection program reimagines mob families.

Steve Ritter at the Chemical & Engineering News is our source scholar.

For pasteurized process cheese, the final product can have a maximum moisture content of 43% and must have at least 47% milkfat. An interesting twist is that the product alternatively can be labeled as pasteurized process American cheese when made from cheddar, colby, cheese curd, granular cheese, or a combination of these; when other varieties of cheese are included, it must be called simply American cheese.
[My Note: American cheese can have a truly wide spread, anywhere from 0.0-14.2% lactose. That's a concentrated lactose cheese product packing three times the lactose of a glass of milk per equal serving.]

Here are some of the other definitions:

Pasteurized process cheese food is a variation of process cheese that may have dry milk, whey solids, or anhydrous milkfat added, which reduces the amount of cheese in the finished product. It must contain at least 51% of the cheese ingredient by weight, have a moisture content less than 44%, and have at least 23% milkfat.

Pasteurized process cheese spread is a variation on cheese food that may contain a sweetener and a stabilizing agent, such as the polysaccharide xanthan gum or the Irish moss colloid carrageenan, to prevent separation of the ingredients. The cheese must be spreadable at 70 F, contain 44 to 60% moisture, and have at least 20% milkfat.

Pasteurized process cheese product is process cheese that doesn't meet the moisture and/or milkfat standards.

Imitation cheese is made from vegetable oil; it is less expensive, but also has less flavor and doesn't melt well.

For the record, Velveeta is pasteurized process cheese spread and Velveeta Light is pasteurized process cheese product. Cheez Whiz is labeled as pasteurized process cheese sauce, although that type isn't noted in the Code of Federal Regulations. A Kraft spokeswoman confirms that the word "sauce" just seems to be an add-on.

Eating heavy amounts of lactose may not occur very often in a formal cheese tasting among cubes of hard cheese. That may be the world of Steingarten and Rayner.

It's not mine. I know that much cheese served for the American palate has been cheapened by the use of oils or of milk fats and milk solids, each designed to return a dairy sort of taste to the final product.

Jay Rayner may never deign to enter American food blow-outs. Steingarten may choose to keep his innocence hid about the mysteries of the foods sucked down by the plebeians. Maybe the expensive, hand-labeled, personally-shipped delicacies of the garden that are dropped upon his massive center table, round and with arrow scars that carry stories that go all the way back to Guenevere and Lancelot even if the table truly was distressed by a pair of Welsh in the back of a furniture shop, maybe the good stuff sits there alone and distresses nobody.

Only Jay Rayner does. For he is a snob, and an ignorant snob at that, and worse, an ignorant snob who appears not to have learned a single thing over the past two or three years since he wrote his original column he thought so much of it and us that he reprinted it now.

Those giving him comments are giving him hell. I don't see any of the wounds doing more than glancing off, but collectively they may give him a belly ache that he'll open some comfort food for, perhaps a big can of beans on toast.

Don't tell him about Beano. It would just confuse the poor lad.

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Lucy said...

Hi Steve - I've arrived here via the furore over the Jay Rayner post ... this is fabulously well researched. Luckily my daughter is only a coeliac, and doesn't have to avoid lactose. I'm sure it's easier to avoid gluten than lactose.

Glad to have found you.

Anonymous said...

What people fail to realize is that many people who claim they are lactose intolerant really aren't. What these people don't understand is why they can sometimes consume milk or milk products without any symptoms and other times cannot. Milk must stay in the stomach long enough for the lactose enzymes to be digested. If the fat (cream) in milk has been removed the milk then the lactose hurries through the stomach before the lactose is digested and then goes on to create all the symptoms of lactose intolerance. However, if you consume milk or milk products without the cream removed it will stay in the stomach long enough, except for those people lacking the enzyme, for the lactose to be digested and thereby eliminate any LI symptoms. This happens because it takes the stomach acid a long time to digest the fat molecules and the milk is not passed along until the fat is digested. It is not understood why the fat will trigger the stomach to hold the milk longer for digestion yet lactose doesn't. (Also it has been found if you consume acidic juices such as orange juice accompanied with milk products that can trigger LI symptoms because the hich acid content of the stomach will will hurry the milk through the stomach before the lactose is digested.)

WickedMonkey said...

Your links in point 3 don't work. Other than that, great article. Thank you!