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Food and Drink

Lactose-intolerant cheese lovers, take heart

The milk in cheese is missing something: lactose

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.

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.

One, the cheese has had plenty of time to ferment. Two, nearly all of the lactose lives in the whey — the liquid part of milk that is drained during the maturation process.

So, by the time the cheese is aged, the lactose has either been converted or removed. The harder the cheese, the less lactose present.

The cheeses don’t even need to be aged that long; with most varieties, the lactose has disappeared after three or four weeks of maturation.

For example, Cabot advertises its Monterey Jack as having zero lactose. That cheese is a bit softer (and younger) than even the brand’s mildest cheddar, which is firmer (thus more solid; hence, less whey).

Fresh cheeses likely will present a problem, and those with issues should tread very carefully around fresh mozzarella, fresh ricotta, cream cheese, burrata, and maybe even brie, depending on the level of sensitivity.

But that certainly leaves an enormous list of cheeses! At a good cheese shop, it’s possible that some 75 to 80 percent of cheeses sold there are safe for lactose-intolerant people.

This means that not only can a lactose-intolerant person receive the nutritional benefits of cheese — protein, calcium, vitamins A, B2, B3 (niacin), B12, and D, and some trace minerals, depending on the milk — but they can also enjoy the variety and nuance present in the good cheeses available to us in this part of the United States.

* * *

If you are lactose-intolerant and are making your way back into the world of cheese, a good plan of action is to buy your favorite cheese (but not a fresh cheese) in a very small quantity. A good cheese shop will cut you a small piece.

Take the cheese home and eat a very small amount along with some other food you can easily digest. Bread, apples, meats, roasted vegetables, dried or fresh fruits — they all taste great with cheese anyway, and they might offer a gentle buffer to your stomach.

Then, if you do experience some gastric distress, you are safe in your own home, free from embarrassment and close to your own personal restroom.

And if you don’t experience distress, then you know you can eat cheese and you can stop sniffling every time you visit the fromagerie. Shove your pals aside and dig into that cheese!

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Originally published in The Commons issue #177 (Wednesday, November 7, 2012).

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