Wendy M. Levy is a veteran cheesemonger, a Marlboro College alumna, and a longtime Windham County resident. She is the proprietor of Brattleboro Cheese. She offers this disclaimer: “I’m just a cheesemonger; I’m not a doctor. I can tell you what I know about cheese and its effect on the human body, but you shouldn’t take this as medical advice. Travel at your own risk.” Be ye warned.
Originally published in The Commons issue #177 (Wednesday, November 7, 2012).
BRATTLEBORO—One of the saddest sights for a cheesemonger is a person who comes into the shop with friends and declines to share the cheese plate because of “lactose intolerance.”
You see it in their eyes: the longing for a bite of blue, a sliver of Piave, a nugget of Ossau-Iraty. They bravely hold back their tears as their friends dig in to a chunk of cheddar.
It makes me want to give them a tissue, but since I don’t keep any behind the counter, the next best thing I can offer them is the good news about their relationship with cheese, and how it’s about to change.
* * *
Also known as hypolactasia, lactose intolerance is a condition affecting people (mostly adults) who lack a sufficient amount of the enzyme lactase in their digestive systems to metabolize milk sugar, or lactose.
When people who are lactose-intolerant eat or drink dairy products that contain lactose, they might experience any combination of unpleasant gastric events, such as bloating, gas, vomiting, or diarrhea.
For some people, the effects are minimal, and they just sort of put up with it.
For others, even a mention of “milk” makes them run in the other direction, clutching their abdomens... or worse.
So does this mean a person with lactose intolerance can’t eat cheese? Cheese is made of milk, after all.
For a long time, many of us believed so, because in our binary world (off/on, black/white, good/evil), you can either eat something or you can’t.
But it’s more complicated than that. Cheese is made from milk, but it’s not really milk any more, once it’s become part of the cheese.
* * *
Like yogurt, cheese is a fermented food. Fermentation is the process whereby a carbohydrate is converted into an alcohol. In the case of cheese, lactose (the milk sugar) turns into lactic acid through the aid of bacterial starter cultures.
Lactic acid is not lactose; thus, it has no negative effects on the digestive process of a lactose-intolerant person.
Pretty nifty, isn’t it?
So here’s the good news: people with lactose intolerance can eat cheese!
Aged cheeses are a wise choice for these folks for two reasons.
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