The Ultimate Guide to Lactose Intolerance

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At LiberEat, we are here to make food accessible and safe for everything, no matter what foods or ingredients you need to avoid. LiberEat has developed a free app for people to find recipes, food products, and restaurants that their family and friends can enjoy. Along with vegans avoiding dairy products, many people avoid milk, dairy products and products containing lactose because it doesn’t agree with their system. 

There can often be confusion between lactose intolerance and a milk allergy, but through our research, we have learned that different processes cause them within the body. Lactose intolerance is due to the inability to process lactose, a form of carbohydrates in dairy. In comparison, a milk allergy is the inability to process the proteins within dairy products.

The distinction between the two is that one is considered an intolerance, and one is an allergy. While considerably unpleasant and uncomfortable, an intolerance reaction does not trigger anaphylaxis like an allergic reaction can.

What is lactose intolerance?

There are four types of lactose intolerance.

    1. The first is ‘Primary Lactase Deficiency’, the most common type, it develops as the body reduces the amount of lactase produced, and often develops once you have developed out of infancy.
    2. The next is ‘Secondary Lactase Deficiency’, which is when the lining of your bowel becomes damaged due to a pre-existing condition (such as Coeliac Disease), however, it is often temporary and the intolerance can lessen over time.
    3. The third is ‘Congenital Lactase Deficiency’, which is the rare condition where an infant is born without the ability to produce any lactase. Due to the severity of this, the baby cannot gain weight and suffers severe diarrhoea.
    4. The final type is ‘Development Lactase Deficiency’ which can develop in premature babies, but is most often temporary and can reduce its effects as the baby ages.

The body naturally produces an enzyme called ‘lactase’, the function of which is to break down lactose into simple sugars for the body to absorb and utilise. Without sufficient lactase, the body is not able to fully process lactose, which can result in  very uncomfortable symptoms.

What Are The Symptoms of Lactose Intolerance?

The symptoms of lactose intolerance usually present within a few hours of the consumption of lactose, but can appear earlier or have a delayed onset. The most common signs and symptoms following the ingestion of lactose are: bloating, diarrhoea, nausea (and sometimes vomiting), flatulence, and abdominal pain.

The symptoms can vary from mild to severe, depending on the person and how little lactase they produce. Some lactose-intolerant individuals can tolerate small amounts of lactose without ill effect, and therefore may be able to consume a limited amount of milk in their tea or coffee, enjoy a small piece of milk chocolate, or a child-sized pot of yogurt. Equally, some individuals find themselves heavily debilitated after the consumption of even a minute amount of lactose. It varies person-to-person. Many people avoid lactose altogether to avoid the symptoms, but it’s possible to accidentally consume lactose, which is why people often check the ingredients on the back of packaging. There is a barcode scanner and search function within the free LiberEat app – which, if you avoid lactose, will give you a quick answer to the question ‘can I eat this?’.

A person who is lactose intolerant often develops the intolerance during their childhood, usually after the age of two – once breastfeeding has ceased. However, lactose intolerance can start to appear at any stage as the amount of lactase in your bowel naturally decreases as you continue to age.

To diagnose lactose intolerance in the UK, your GP will assess your symptoms and may examine your abdomen. You may be asked to try a strict non-lactose diet for some time to assess if there’s any positive development with your symptoms. Whilst other tests are usually not necessary, they may be suggested by your GP to cover all bases.

Which Foods Contain Lactose?

Avoiding lactose generally means avoiding dairy. Dairy is the term we use to describe milk and products that contain milk (i.e. cream, cheese, ice-cream, or yogurt).

Harder cheeses contain less lactose than softer cheeses. Some who are only mildly lactose intolerant may find themselves able to stomach small amounts of hard cheese, such as cheddar, due to low lactose content. But there are non-dairy alternatives to traditional hard and soft cheeses and vegan options too – you can find a huge selection of dairy free cheeses in the food products section of the LiberEat app. Most UK supermarkets will have lactose free cheeses near the dairy cheese, and some now also have a fridge section dedicated to vegan cheeses. At LiberEat, we’ve found the selection of vegan cheeses has improved and expanded vastly over the past few years.

Those that have only a mild lactose intolerance can enjoy a wealth of lactose-free dairy products. These products are those which have had lactase added to them to aid the digestion of lactose. Lactose-free dairy products and milk have extremely similar properties and offer nearly the same taste, texture, and nutritional profile as regular milk and cheese etc. It is still, however, a dairy product, and as such still may cause an allergic reaction to those with a milk allergy. In addition, as it is still dairy, it is not suitable for those following a vegan diet.

There are a variety of food items that often contain lactose, these can include:

– Cakes
– Biscuits (you can check out our guide to vegan biscuits here)
– Chocolates
– Sweets (check out our list of top vegan UK sweets here)
– Ice cream
– Breads and baked goods
– Condiments, such as mayonnaise
– Processed meats
– ‘Instant foods’, such as instant mashed potatoes and soup

Avoiding lactose? We can help

What Milk and Dairy Alternatives Are There for Me?

Thankfully for the lactose intolerant, there has been a discernible market shift towards plant-based milks and dairy-alternatives.

Such milk alternatives include: soya milk, oat milk, almond milk, coconut milk, hazelnut milk, cashew milk, rice milk, hemp milk, rice milk, hemp milk, potato milk and pea milk. Thise is also a huge selection of dairy-free cheeses, yogurts, and ice creams also made from these plant-based milks.

The dairy- and lactose-averse need not despair at the reduced selection of cheeses, as there also exists various non-dairy cheeses – both soft and hard – made from products such as coconut, almond milk, and even tofu. And there’s no shortage of different styles of lactose-free and plant-based cheeses! From mozzarella to cheddar to Parmesan and more!

Check out some of our other articles on milk alternatives and dairy free products:

Best milk alternatives for cereal, tea, coffee…

How to choose the right plant-based milk for you

Free From Chocolate

How The LiberEat App Can Help You Avoid Gluten:

  1. Recipes.

We have a section dedicated to user-contributed recipes, including some LiberEat originals and contributions from our friends at The Vegan Society. Once you have completed your dietary profile in the app to confirm the ingredients you avoid, we will automatically present to you the recipes that are suitable for your dietary requirements. Each recipe is thoroughly checked by our team for any allergens.

  1. Product Search.

If you find a recipe you like, but find it contains a food item you need to avoid, we have a products section where you can search for substitutes that match your dietary requirements, so you don’t have to miss out on the deliciousness. We know that reading packaging in the shops is time-consuming and no fun!

  1. Scan Barcodes

If, like us, you are constantly on the go and sometimes are in a pinch where you need to pick up something convenient to eat and are unsure of whether it’s suitable for you, then you can just give the barcode a scan with the app’s in-built scanner to check whether it’s suitable for you. Once in the app, you can also filter the results between supermarkets. You can find dairy-free items in Asda, Sainsbury’s, and Co-op, for example. Our database has over 130,000 products – and we add new items daily!

  1. Eating Out Can be Fun Again!

With our map function, we can find restaurants near you with their entire dietary and nutritional information on hand via the LiberEat app. If you see a tasty dish but aren’t sure whether it’s safe for you to eat, you can just pop onto the app, go onto their menu, and we’ll automatically filter out what you can’t eat and provide all the dietary and allergen information for you. Or if you’re still trying to decide on where to go, we can find dairy-free options near you. Currently, we have over 1,500 live locations so you’ll always have somewhere to go.

If you are ever in doubt, use the LiberEat app to scan the barcode and be careful when checking product labels. Get The App

Some of our favourite lactose-free/non-dairy recipes:

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