Donna BerryCHICAGO — Real or perceived, a growing number of consumers claim to be lactose intolerant, and as a result, avoid all dairy products. Processors are discovering that eliminating lactose — a disaccharide unique to all mammalian milk — from dairy foods may prevent consumers from switching to dairy alternatives, when the sole reason for the swap is to avoid lactose.

Approximately 65% of the human population has a reduced ability to digest lactose, according to the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md. This is due to the lack of the enzyme lactase, which is responsible for breaking lactose down into the monosaccharides glucose and galactose. When lactose does not break down in the small intestine, it passes into the large intestine, where it may cause diarrhea, bloating and gas.

Lactose intolerance is most prevalent in people of East Asian descent. Its occurrence is lowest in populations where unfermented dairy products, namely fluid milk, are a staple. Only about 5% of Northern European descendants are lactose intolerant.

Regardless of ethnic heritage, after infancy, humans naturally start to produce less lactase. There is significant loss for a few, but most continue to produce varying amounts of lactase throughout life. A fair amount of the population produces enough lactase so that lactose-related intestinal discomforts are not experienced. The level of intolerance impacts the amount of lactose one can consume before experiencing painful side effects.

Borden lactose-free cheeseLactose-intolerance symptoms typically occur when the load of lactose is very large and rapidly arrives in the large intestine. If small amounts of lactose slowly arrive, the microflora in the gut digests the lactose at an even rate and no or minimal discomfort is experienced by those individuals who lack lactase.

Research shows that consumers with lactose intolerance can actually tolerate small doses of fluid milk — the dairy product that’s the most concentrated source of lactose — throughout the day. Further, there are many dairy products that contain so little lactose that they should not be an issue.

Many natural cheeses — the more aged the cheese, the less lactose — contain less than 0.1 grams of lactose per serving, with sugars reported as zero on the Nutrition Facts Label. Cheese marketers don’t typically make lactose-free claims, but some have started.

In many instances, cheese makers — and other dairy foods marketers — are using high-performance liquid chromatography (H.P.L.C.) assays to confirm the absence of lactose. The test is relatively easy and can be done in the manufacturing facility’s quality control lab using a bench-top testing system.

Most fermented dairy products — kefir, sour cream and yogurt — also contain very low levels, if any, of lactose. That’s because the cultures ferment the lactose, breaking it down into glucose and galactose.

Lifeway Kefir lemon meringueLifeway Foods Inc., Morton Grove, Ill., communicates to consumers that its unique fermentation process and specific kefir cultures ensure that Lifeway Kefir is up to 99% lactose free and suitable for most people who are lactose intolerant.

In a 2010 white paper published by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, Rosemont, Ill., researchers presented data showing an opportunity to achieve more than 250 million gallons of incremental fluid milk growth by targeting the lactose-intolerant segment. The consumer research and analysis showed that more than three-fourths of lactose-intolerant consumers would be willing to include dairy in their diets if they could do so while minimizing symptoms. By expanding the availability and variety of lactose-free milk and milk products, it may be possible to keep consumers who avoid dairy due to real or perceived lactose intolerance in the category, and even bring others back.

Boston-based Beckon ice cream is all about keeping lactose-intolerant consumers buying real dairy ice cream.

“It’s time to shift what we thought was possible,” said Gwen Burlingame, co-founder. “Beckon is here to welcome lactose-intolerant ice cream lovers back to real premium ice cream. We chose the name Beckon to illustrate that invitation or call to join in. Our ice cream is not an alternative; it’s the real deal. We’re extending deliciously creamy, dairy-full ice cream to an entire group of individuals who have previously had to compromise.”

Beckon eliminates lactose by adding lactase to the milk during manufacturing. This is the most common and easiest approach. A side perk to this process is that glucose and galactose are sweeter Beckon ice creamthan lactose, and in products such as flavored milk and ice cream, an added-sugar reduction may be possible.

Another ingredient approach is to formulate dairy products using lactose-free dairy ingredients. Arctic Zero, San Diego, markets namesake Fit Frozen Desserts, which are low in calories and fat; free of lactose, gluten and G.M.O.s, as well as artificial flavors, sweeteners and colors. They also are low glycemic. The frozen desserts are made with whey protein concentrate rather than milk and cream.

Another way to remove lactose is through filtration.

This is the approach taken by Fairlife L.L.C. to produce its namesake lactose-free fluid milk and milk-based beverages. The company filters milk, separating it into five streams: water, fat, lactose, protein, and vitamins and minerals, and then recombines them in different proportions. The lactose is simply not added back into its products. 

View slideshow of lactose-free dairy products.