Lactose labels in grocery store

Lactose Free Labels: a Consumer’s Guide to Smart Shopping

Keren Reiser, RD

Written by: Keren Reiser, RD

Updated: June 5th, 2024

Are you considering a lactose-free lifestyle but unsure where to begin? Whether you’re embracing this dietary choice due to lactose intolerance or seeking alternatives for personal reasons, navigating the grocery aisles with confidence is key. Adopting a lactose-free lifestyle isn’t just about cutting out dairy products; it’s about making informed choices and discovering alternatives that align with your dietary needs. From deciphering labels to exploring lactose-free options, embarking on a lactose-free journey begins with smart shopping. Let’s delve into the essentials of building a lactose-free fridge and pantry!

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First things first, why do some people need to avoid lactose? 

Those with Lactose Intolerance

Lactose is a sugar found in animal milk and milk products. Lactose is typically broken down in your intestine by an enzyme called lactase, splitting it up into two sugars, named glucose and galactose, which can then be absorbed1. Those with Lactose intolerance have insufficient or no lactase enzymes, which are responsible for breaking down the lactose present in foods like dairy products1. If lactose does not get broken down in the small intestine, it passes to the large intestine where the bacteria ferments it, resulting in uncomfortable symptoms including cramping in the abdomen, gas, bloating, and diarrhea1.

Those following Low-FODMAP eating

FODMAP is an acronym for fermentable oligo-, di- and monosaccharides, and polyols. These short-chain carbohydrates have a non-absorbable nature in the small intestine, forcing them to go under bacterial fermentation, causing cramping, bloating, and diarrhea. Lactose at certain concentrations in food or beverages is considered high FODMAP (disaccharide), however not everyone who follows a low FODMAP diet is sensitive to lactose. Similarly, not everyone who is sensitive to lactose would benefit from a low-FODMAP diet2.

Note that low to moderate intolerance to lactose may often be an indicator for the presence of IBS, however ensure you’re working with your healthcare provider to determine the presence of IBS2.

Is lactose intolerance the same as an allergy?

Lactose intolerance is not an allergy to milk1. A milk allergy is an allergy to milk proteins, such as whey or casein, which makes the body fight the invader-like milk proteins, and can cause symptoms such as hives, an upset stomach, vomiting, bloody stools and anaphylactic shock – a life threatening consequence3.

On the other hand, an intolerance to lactose is due to the inability and difficulty of breaking down and/or absorbing lactose found in dairy products1. Lactose intolerance is much less serious than a dairy allergy, but still has symptoms that are unpleasant and uncomfortable. People with lactose intolerance can consume dairy products, while those with dairy allergies cannot1,3

Whether limiting lactose due to lactose intolerance, low FODMAP eating, or other reasons, it’s important to consult your registered dietitian or physician to ensure you are not unnecessarily limiting certain foods or food groups.

dietitian discussing lactose free options

What products naturally have lactose?

What products may have added lactose?

Various food products may have lactose and/or milk components that may include lactose added to them4. Some of these of these include:

If I need to avoid lactose, do I need to avoid all dairy products?

No, when avoiding lactose, you can still consume some dairy products4.

Products that naturally have lactose include milk (including cow and goat), cheese, butter, buttermilk, cream, ice cream, whey and whey products, yogurt, and kefir are often available in lactose-free versions in your grocery store4. Additionally, there are also some products which contain dairy, but are lower in lactose such as whey isolate protein powder, and hard cheeses.

In addition to avoiding uncomfortable digestive symptoms, another great benefit of lactose free dairy products is that they can be swapped in most recipes for their lactose-containing counterparts without having to alter the recipe! 

Choosing Lactose-free products

When it comes to calories, protein, fat, and carbs, lactose-free dairy products are identical to their lactose-containing counterparts6. Dairy products, whether lactose free or not, are a good source of protein and contain essential nutrients such as Calcium and Vitamin D which are important for strong bones1,6.

Removing dairy all together can greatly affect your intake of these nutrients unless replaced elsewhere in your diet1,6. Consult a RD if you have any questions about the types of foods to avoid.

When reading a food label, how do I tell if a product has lactose in it?

There are a few ways in which you can tell if a product has lactose or may have lactose.

Ingredient list (milk, milk protein, lactose, etc), which is located on the nutrition facts panel. 

Words such as milk, milk solids, milk powder, curds, whey, milk by-products, cream, cheese, and butter are indicative of the presence of lactose4. However, some of these products may not contain lactose if treated with either the lactase enzyme or if fermented by bacteria4.

While these ingredients may make you think that they have lactose, lactate (lactic acid), lactitol, milk protein and lactic acid bacteria/fermented lactic acid do not contain any lactose5.

Read the ingredients thoroughly when buying dairy products to ensure you chose the one right for you7.

‘Lactose Free’ claims on labels

In Canada, a product that contains less than 0.1g lactose per 100g may be called ‘lactose free’ and for most people with lactose intolerances, this amount of lactose does not cause digestive issues5. You may also see the term ‘lactose reduced’ to describe a product that has been reduced significantly in lactose. A significant reduction is considered to be a 25% reduction in lactose or more and for people who can handle a little bit of lactose, these are often better choices5. Oftentimes you will see either ‘lactase’ or a lacto-bacteria listed in the ingredient list of lactose free or lactose reduced products, which can help to indicate that the product has little to no lactose in it8. For example, Lactantia®’s lactose free butter is made from cream that has been treated with the lactase enzyme, and therefore doesn’t contain lactose.

Tips For Eating Lactose Free

  1. Consider choosing non-dairy alternatives, however keep in mind that these products may not be nutritionally equal to animal based dairy.
  2. Look for dairy products that have been treated with lactase enzyme. This will appear in the ingredient list and the product will likely be labeled ‘lactose free’.
  3. Look for dairy products that have been fermented. While these products often do still contain some lactose, the levels are often quite low.
  4. Look for products that are specifically designated lactose free.
  5. Try introducing a dairy product you don’t often eat in relatively small portions as part of your regular diet to see how your body behaves. Oftentimes those who are lactose intolerant can still consume moderate levels of lactose without issue.
  6. When in doubt, supplement with the lactase enzyme, which is readily available at most pharmacies.

Whatever your reason for avoiding lactose, ensure you consult a registered dietitian before considering eliminating foods or food groups.



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