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Curds and Cheese

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Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet, eating her curds and whey. From the curds we get cheese, and from the whey we get trouble. But that's next. Lets start with the curds.

Curds are formed by using an enzyme called rennet to coagulate the milk protein casein. If you stop there you wind up with the soft cheeses, from cream cheese and cottage cheese to Neufchatel and farmer cheese. All have about half as much lactose as regular milk.

The process of aging cheese hardens it and drives out the remaining whey, which is high in lactose. Even mild cheddar, aged 60 days, is noticeably low in lactose, while extra sharp cheddar, aged 12 months, may contain little or no lactose at all. Other cheeses follow a similar pattern. Crumbly and semi-soft cheeses have the most lactose; hard, aged cheeses the least. Most people who are LI tolerate cheese extremely well, even in large quantities. (One exception: the whey cheeses. Ricotta is the one best known in the U.S., although there are dozens of local varieties. Ricotta can have as much lactose as milk, but sometimes is much lower, depending on regional variations.)

Many packaged cheeses are so low in lactose that they can get away with saying they have 0 grams of lactose per serving. These are good, but better is available. Real dairy 100% lactose free cheese has finally made its way onto the market. The Lifetime Food Co., whose regular cheese line has long been found in natural food stores, now makes 100% lactose free mozzarella, jalapeno jack, and cheddar. If you can't find this in stores, The Cheese Factory offers bricks of 100% lactose free cheddar at their web site.

Process cheese is something else altogether. There are several types, each farther away from natural cheese than the last. Pasteurized process cheese is closest, followed by cheese food and cheese products and stuff that doesn't even contain the word cheese in the title. Almost all are made with a heavy hand on the whey, and so are higher in lactose than regular milk. If you're LI you should avoid them all. (Although Lactaid does distribute Lactose Free Pasteurized Processed Cheese Food Slices in certain areas.)

If you have an allergy to milk, of course, none of these cheeses are truly safe for you. (Exception again: a few people with whey allergies can have the curd cheeses and vice versa, but those with sensitive allergies should not try this.) A number of brands now make soy-, rice-, or nut-based cheeses, all of which are virtually or completely lactose-free. Those with allergies need to read ingredient lists very carefully, however: most of these alternative "cheeses" contain casein or caseinate. That's to get a product that "tastes, stretches, and melts like cheese," as one manufacturer puts it.

Luckily, several truly vegan cheeses and cream cheeses are now available. Those brands I know of include Rice, Vegan Rella, Soymage, and Tofutti. They do not stretch or melt, nor can they be frozen. They are also not nutritionally equivalent to cheese. Of course, if all you want are slices or nibbles, they may do just fine. Tofutti at one time even offered casein-free Mini Ravioli and Tortellini.

A bit of searching should find the cheese or near-cheese right for you.

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