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Monday, September 05, 2011

Lactose in Goat Cheese and Yogurt

I received an email from Jo-Ann asking me about the percentage of lactose in goat cheese and yogurt.

That's a question that looks very straightforward, but it contains traps and pitfalls.

Goat cheese is a fad food today. A few years ago you might never have seen goat cheese outside of a few specialized cheese shops or fancy restaurants. Today I went to a chain restaurant that served salads and sandwiches and paninis featuring goat cheese. They might have had goat cheese is their oatmeal, too. They called it Swiss oatmeal but it came with banana slices and goats are far more Swiss than bananas are. The irony is that practically every farm across the world makes its own specialty cheese and thousands of those cheeses with thousands of tiny distinct variations can be purchased even in ordinary supermarkets, but somehow "goat cheese" has entered the vocabulary of fast food as a single thing.

So what is goat cheese? There are two main varieties, the Mediterranean style of brined curd known as feta and the French style known as chevre. Feta is crumblier and chevre is creamier. As Wikipedia handily points out, though, goat cheeses come in many varieties from many nations under many forms. The cheese used in salads is probably feta, because the crumbles are visually attractive and give good mouthfeel.

Cheese is the slipperiest dairy product. Pinning an exact number on a product you can't even identify by name is an exercise in futility. Those thousands of variations mean thousands of variations in the percentage of lactose they contain. I doubt if anybody's ever bothered to do a lactose comparison between Mató and Pantysgawn and Kunik and Rubing, just to pull a few fun-sounding names out of that Wikipedia article. It gets worse when big corporations buy from many sources that produce an individualistic product that varies season to season and probably cow to cow.

Don't give up just yet, because it turns out there are a few things that I can say. Your intestines aren't research scientists and they aren't grading you to three significant figures. Approximations and generalities will do.

We know one big fact about cheese. The more aging that goes into cheese, the lower the lactose percentage. The aging process literally squeezes the liquid out of the cheese and the liquid takes the lactose with it. Broadly speaking, therefore, the harder a cheese is, the lower the lactose percentage. And that also implies that the softer a cheese, the higher the lactose percentage. And feta and chevre both are soft cheeses.

I put together collections of lactose percentages from several sources into a table on my website called The Really BIG List of Lactose Percentages. Yep, feta is there. At 4.1% lactose it's definitely at the high end of lactose in cheese.

Still, it's part of a continuum of percentages, not an outlier. And that brings up an important point that I try to hammer home whenever I can because so many other people avoid saying it. Goat cheese, like goat milk, like every other goat dairy product, has essentially the identical lactose content to the similar product made from cow's milk. I've ranted about this before so I won't go down that road today. When it comes to lactose all the milks that people use to make dairy products from are essentially interchangeable.

Which takes care of the answer to the question about goat yogurt. If it is made in traditional tart style, it's probably low in lactose, just as cow's milk yogurt is. But manufacturers often make yogurt sweeter for the North American market, and that usually means adding in no merely sugar and fruit but also additional dairy products than can drive up the lactose percentage. All I can tell you, as good consumers, is to check the ingredients lists and see if they contain milk products other than the milk at the top of the list. If you see them, assume that lactose will follow.

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2 comments:

Amélie said...

Awesome post. It's nice to have you back!

Steve Carper said...

Thanks! It's much appreciated. Really and truly.