Albeit anecdotally, I feel over the last few years I have seen a sharp increase in the amount of products labelled as “lactose-free”. In my cheese-mongering infancy, when I first began learning about cheesemaking, lactose was the one area in particular that left me feeling a little bit perplexed. The one question I kept coming back to is “if, during the cheese-making process, lactose is naturally turned into lactic acid and thus resulting in low lactose levels, then why on earth is there a dedicated supermarket section with cheeses labelled as ‘lactose-free’?”
Picture contains a photo of a very young me.
In order to understand why people need lactose-free cheese, we first need to learn about lactose intolerance. If you're an adult and can consume milk without feeling under the weather you are, in fact, a mutant! Not the swooping crime-fighting kind, but the inheritor of a genetic mutation that evolved about 12,000 years ago that gives you the ability to consume dairy products.
For those who aren’t complete curd nerds; lactose is a sugar that naturally occurs in milk and is readily broken down by lactase, an enzyme in the stomach. The reason why the vast majority of babies can drink milk is because they produce large amounts of lactase up to the age of five. At this age, some stop producing lactase and so lose the ability to drink milk without feeling unwell. In effect, they become lactose intolerant and can no longer consume milk or dairy products in adulthood.
Chart displaying lactose value during a typical cheddar make. These figures vary from make to make.
Now, you may be surprised to learn that most adults in the world, approximately 75%, can’t consume dairy products because of a lactose intolerance. This isn’t surprising as our genetic lactase-producing mutation has only evolved relatively recently in human history, approximately 10 - 12,000 years ago. But this evolution, I think, is pretty awesome. I think the reason why we developed genetic mutations to tolerate dairy is because it’s a nutritionally complete food - it has everything we need! I’m sure many people throughout history have tolerated the short-term dairy consequences, when food wasn't readily available, and benefited greatly from its nutritional value.
Having established that milk is very nutritional, that it comes from a reliable food source, and that the Neolithic people struggled with consuming milk in its raw form is why we have cheese today. They discovered leaving milk to sour, allowing the natural flora (lactobaciullus) in the milk to feed on lactose minimising its presence, and unlocking the essential nutritional value without the potential, shall we say, flatulence.
As I mentioned at the top of this blog, we can trackback years upon years of humans making cheese and consuming cheese, but several years ago, there was a marked increase in Lactose free cheese on our shelves. Why this increase, when the vast majority of cheese has only a trace element of lactose? Let’s take a quick look at the chart below and the presence of lactose in some styles of cheese:
Chart displays the various levels of Lactose. These are typical profiles and can range from 0 to the upper percentage dependant on maker etc.
Well, the only reason (albeit a cynical one) I can see is those pesky corporations again. Cheese-making is complicated, and most people I speak to do not understand the process of cheesemaking and the side bonus of lactose minimisation - and that’s totally understandable! The one thing people do understand, however, is milk is high in lactose and cheese is made out of the stuff, and that lack of understanding is loaded with enough ambiguity to make some supermarket money. So when you’re next having conversation with a friend about a grumbling stomach, point them to some harder artisan cheese varieties, and you might make them a very happy human being.