The neon sign in the colorful photo further below can be found in one of Copenhagen’s main avenues and reads “1/2 liter of milk every day, all your life”, an indication of the importance of this food for some people.
For some — instead of a source of nutrients — dairy might be a source of malaise. I am talking about lactose intolerance.
About the time I turned 30 I began to show symptoms of “intestinal discomfort” that appeared at what I thought were random intervals. At times it made me think that they could be caused by some serious condition. Try to fly 12 hours with stomach cramps and you will see what I am talking about. Since I knew that some people develop allergies or intolerance to certain foods as they get older, I decided to do my own research. Some of the suspects were dairy products, gluten, beans and some vegetables; foods that an important minority does not tolerate well. After experimenting by avoiding each of these foods one by one, I found that dairy products, mainly cream, milk and fresh cheeses, were the cause of my malady.
It was of little consolation to have found out that most people in the world suffer from lactose intolerance; information that at the beginning I found quite surprising. The term ‘lactose intolerance’ suggests that those who do not tolerate lactose are rare. In fact, those adults that tolerate lactose are in the minority. Lactose intolerance is a “disorder” that affects at least 75% of the population worldwide. It is more prevalent among some ethnic groups and affects the majority of Asians (who largely stop digesting lactose once they are weaned), Hispanics, Indians, and Africans. It is least prevalent among Northern Europeans, 95% of whom can consume dairy throughout their lives — which explains the street sign.
What is lactose intolerance?
Lactose intolerance should not be confused with an allergy, as each is a different reaction to a different problem. The latter is a disorder that involves the immune system, which isn’t the case for lactose intolerance. What causes lactose intolerance in adults is clear and well documented: At a certain point most people stop producing lactase, an enzyme that breaks down lactose — a natural sugar present in all dairy products. This enzyme is produced by the cells in the small intestine, and the lack of which can produce in the presence of lactose symptoms that, although non-life-threatening, can be very uncomfortable: nausea, gas, bloating, stomach cramps, diarrhea, etc. The severity of the symptoms will depend on the amount of lactose that the person can tolerate.
Lactose intolerance is not necessarily an impediment to the consumption of dairy products in small amounts — at least for some people. Although there are those who think that adults should not consume dairy at all, it is also true that dairy products are a part of our culinary heritage and an important source of nutrients.
For those afflicted by it, and who do not wish to abstain from the consumption of dairy products, we have these suggestions:
1. Consult your doctor. One of a few simple tests will confirm that your symptoms are produced by lactase deficiency and not another type of disorder. Your doctor can help you determine what amount of dairy, if any, you can tolerate.
2. Test and see which dairy products, and in what quantity, you can tolerate. While you may not tolerate one particular dairy product, you could find out that you can consume others with fewer problems. Choose aged cheeses over fresh ones, for example. The latter contains more lactose, as does skim milk.
4. There are lactase supplements available over the counter. It may help you cope with varying quantities of lactose.
5. There are products aimed at people with lactase deficiency. Some dairy companies produce milk with reduced lactose or added lactase, and most supermarkets carry milk substitutes, such as soy, rice, and almond milk.
5. You might belong to the group that needs to abstain completely from dairy. Sorry about that, but don’t despair, if it is any consolation, you are not alone. There are millions of people like you, and most cope just right and eat a varied and delicious diet.