lactose intolerance awareness month main graphic

Understanding Lactose Intolerance and Lactose-Free Alternatives


Written by: CDHF

Updated: February 29th, 2024

Lactose intolerance is a common digestive disorder that affects a large portion of Canadians and the global population. February is National Lactose Intolerance Awareness Month! Throughout the month of February, CDHF will be spreading awareness on social media, and educating Canadians on the different aspects of lactose intolerance, what it means for a product to be “lactose-free” and discuss lactose-free alternatives. Let’s jump into it!

First things first, what is Lactose Intolerance?

Typically, when someone consumes a food item containing lactose, an enzyme called lactase, produced in the small intestine, works its magic by breaking down lactose into simpler components—glucose and galactose, both simple sugars. These sugars are then absorbed into the bloodstream, providing the energy your body needs.

However, for individuals with lactose intolerance, there’s a hiccup in this process. The body doesn’t produce enough lactase to effectively break down lactose. Consequently, undigested lactose molecules make their way to the lower parts of the intestine. It’s here that they encounter bacteria, kickstarting a digestive process called fermentation. The by-products of this fermentation—hydrogen, carbon dioxide, methane gases, and short-chain fatty acids—are the culprits behind the classic symptoms of lactose intolerance, such as gassiness and diarrhea.

Levels of Discomfort

Lactose intolerance is a spectrum and can manifest in varying degrees of discomfort, ranging from mild malabsorption to severe intolerance. Understanding these levels of discomfort can help individuals manage their symptoms effectively.  It’s important to understand that lactose intolerance is not a simple “yes” or “no” situation. It’s not about having none or all of the symptoms. Instead, it varies for different people, and some may experience it more or less intensely than others.

Further, lactose intolerance can develop gradually over time, and individuals may notice an increase in symptoms as they age. Factors such as genetics, ethnic background, and underlying health conditions can contribute to the severity of lactose intolerance. While some people may experience symptoms in adolescence or early adulthood, others may not develop noticeable discomfort until later in life.

levels of lactose intolerance explained in graphic: light malabsorption, moderate intolerance, severe intolerance

Light Malabsorption:

Individuals with light malabsorption may experience subtle discomfort after consuming dairy products. Symptoms are typically mild and may include:

In this level of lactose intolerance, the body still produces some lactase, allowing for the digestion of small amounts of lactose without causing significant issues. Many people with light malabsorption can manage their symptoms by moderating their dairy intake.

Moderate Intolerance:

Individuals with moderate lactose intolerance may experience more noticeable symptoms, and these may include:

At this level, the body’s ability to produce lactase is reduced, making it challenging to digest moderate amounts of lactose. Managing symptoms often involves a more significant reduction in dairy consumption or the use of lactase supplements.

Severe Intolerance:

Severe lactose intolerance is characterized by intense discomfort and digestive issues even with minimal lactose consumption. Symptoms can be severe and may include:

Individuals with severe intolerance may need to adopt a strict lactose-free diet to prevent symptoms. Complete avoidance of dairy products and the inspection of food labels become crucial to managing symptoms effectively.

What does “Lactose-free” mean?

The term “lactose-free” refers to a product that contains little to no lactose, the sugar naturally present in milk and dairy products. What are some products that are lactose-free? We outline them below.

Lactose-Free Milk:

Lactose-free milk undergoes a process that breaks down lactose into its simpler sugars, glucose and galactose. This enzymatic reaction is achieved by adding the enzyme lactase to the milk. Lactase is the enzyme that lactose-intolerant individuals lack in sufficient amounts. By pre-digesting lactose, lactase makes the milk more easily digestible for people with lactose intolerance, allowing them to absorb the nutrients without experiencing adverse gastrointestinal effects. Lactose-free milk has the same nutritional values as regular milk, while keeping its taste and texture.

Lactase Supplements:

While not strictly “lactose-free,” lactase supplements play a crucial role in aiding digestion for individuals with lactose intolerance. These supplements contain the enzyme lactase and can be taken before consuming dairy products. By providing the necessary enzymes for lactose digestion, lactase supplements help minimize or eliminate digestive discomfort associated with lactose consumption.

What are the benefits of Lactose-Free products?

In conclusion, understanding the levels of lactose intolerance is crucial for managing symptoms and making informed dietary choices. Lactose-free alternatives, including lactose-free milk provide great solutions for individuals with lactose intolerance, allowing them to enjoy the nutritional benefits of dairy without the not-so-pleasant symptoms!

It is important to note that while lactose-free milk is a great alternative, individuals with severe lactose intolerance may still need to exercise caution and consult with a healthcare professional to determine the most suitable dietary choices.

Learn more about Lactose intolerance this month by reviewing our other resources!

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