If you check up on this blog, you've probably noticed the recent influx of cheese-related posts. A few of you have questioned the presence of such content on a not-quite-vegan themed blog. However, I'm posting today to defend my current love affair with cheese.
Let's start with the basics. There are two kinds of lactose intolerance:
1) Primary Lactose Intolerance: People who don't have enough lactase enzyme, which helps break down lactose (milk) sugars. Our bodies naturally produce less of this when we aren't breast-feeding infants, not expecting to process the breast milk of other mammals for years to come. Inadequate amounts of lactase result in big chunks of unprocessed sugars trying to make their way through the intestines, which is quite uncomfortable -- hence the bloating, gassiness, pain, etc. For these people, products like Lactaid pills and Lactaid milk, which contain supplements of the lactase enzyme, often eliminate discomfort. Some claim that the big chunks of sugar absorb water and becomes food for bacteria that form gases and acids. Ouch.
2) Secondary Lactose Intolerance: People with unhealthy or imbalanced gut flora (the array of bacteria living in the intestines). Everyone has plenty of *good* bacteria that hang out make sure everything is chugging along as per normal, and work to ward off *bad* bacteria. Strong doses of antibiotics can wipe out the strains of good gut flora and make way for bad bacteria. I myself went through several rounds of antibiotics (for two cases of walking pneumonia and several stubborn ear infections) over a three-year period. This basically wiped out my gut flora, and the less-desirable bacteria hanging out in my intestines now love to feed off the milk sugars that may pass through my system. They get excited and produce, again, gas, bloating, pain, etc. Pills don't help people in this category.
So, what's a lactard to do? Give up all milk products? That means cheese, ice cream, milk, pizza, butter, cottage cheese, yogurt...oh my! I don't want to! And, according to several sources, I don't have to. For example, Bob Fusco of the NIH says:
Most of the lactose is removed from the cheese with the whey during the manufacturing process. As a result, most ripened cheeses contain about 95 percent less lactose (.4 to 1 gram per serving) than whole milk (9-12 grams per serving), and less even than Lactaid milk (3 grams per serving), a brand of fluid milk that has most of the lactose specially removed.
Now, I tend to stay moderately suspicious of the NIH, but ever since I've been broadcasting my lactose intolerance, servers, doctors, friends, and various internet sources have been telling me the same thing. Here are the cheeses that seem to be ok for me:
Most styles of cheese are aged a certain length of time before consumption. Any cheese aged over six months -- including most hard cheeses, cheddars, etc -- will have 0g lactose. No lactose means no problem for the lactose-intolerant! Some experts claim any cheese aged more than 60 days has less than 1g of lactose and therefore ought to be safe for most of the lactose-sensitive population. However, some people still suffer from headaches when eating aged cheeses.
Goat Milk Cheeses
Goat's milk contains slightly less lactose than cow's milk, so some goat's milk products are more digestible. Additionally, goat's milk does not contain casein, the protein found in cow's milk, therefore making goat's milk easier to digest.
Raw Milk Cheeses
Raw milk contains harmless bacteria which produce lactase which, in turn, enables the human body to break down and absorb lactose. Pasteurized milk has had all of these bacteria killed off and is therefore lactase-free, but still contains lactose, causing problems for many people who try to drink it. Raw milk cheeses are said to promote easier digestion and better calcium absorption; contribute to a stronger immune system; aid in combating allergies; are high in conjugated linoleic acid - the most potent cancer fighter; and contain a perfect balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
I can tolerate yogurt and aged cheeses with no problem. Pizza and ice cream are the most vicious culprits for me, and lately goat's milk cheeses haven't been so great, either. Fresh cheeses like mozzarella and ricotta are pretty much death, and I've just started experimenting with raw milk. Stay tuned!