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The SuperGuide
to Dairy Products

Know your enemy: Here's the inside scoop, not just on ice cream but on every kind of milk product that exists, anything you might find in a store or on an ingredients list.

Milk is such a wonderful product -- versatile, full of nutrients, good tasting -- that commercial food processors love it to death. Almost all cultures have a favorite milk product or two, and it's been around for so many thousand years that a truly staggering number of variations can be found.

But not all milks are created equal, and some are a lot easier on the LI than others. Study this section well: memorize it, take it to the store with you, use it to check all the ingredients lists on all the cans and boxes on your shelves. It's that important.

(And if you don't already know all about our super-nemesis Whey, don't eat another bite before you read that section.)

    

    For a longer and more detailed explanation of each category, see:
    For you impatient types who just want facts, check out:
    If you still can't find an answer to any question on lactose intolerance, then

    And now for the rest of you, here's a brief rundown on every type of dairy product the American supermarket has lurking in it.

        


Fluid Milks

Regular Milk:

From our point of view, milk is pretty much milk, no matter whether it is whole, low-fat, or skim (aka nonfat). All of it contains approximately 5.0% lactose. It could be a bit more or less. Milk depends on the cows it comes from, how the cows are fed, whether milk from one batch has been mixed with another and so on. (Virtually all milk in the U.S. has been pasteurized and fortified with vitamin D and, if low-fat or skim, Vitamin A. None of this affects the lactose percentage in the least.) Other variations you might see include low-sodium milk or calcium-fortified milk. These too will have approximately 5.0% lactose.
 
Chocolate Milk: Chocolate milks, because they have cocoa solids added, average just a bit less lactose, say 4.5%. This may be one of the reasons chocolate milk has been found to be somewhat more easily digested than white milks. (Another guess is that the cocoa solids move the lactose through our digestive tract a bit slower, allowing our lactase more time to work.) Other flavored milks will be equivalent.
 
Lactose-Reduced Milk: Lactose-reduced milks seem to come in three varieties: 70%, 80%, and 100% lactose-reduced. (If there are others out there, please let me know.) The 70% and 80% varieties contain about 1.1% to 1.6% lactose. The 100% variety has less than 0.5% lactose. (No, not zero percent: no process, no matter how good, can promise that.) You can find an analogue to just about every kind of regular milk: whole, 2% low-fat, 1% low-fat, nonfat, low-fat chocolate, nonfat calcium-enriched. All have exactly the same nutritional values as their equivalent higher lactose milk.

Creams

Cream: Here's a simple rule of thumb: the higher the fat content, the lower the lactose content. (Even whole milk has a tiny bit less lactose than skim milk.) Half-and-half has just over 4.0% lactose. Light or table cream runs just under 4.0% lactose. Whipping cream (also called light whipping cream) has somewhere between 3.0% and 3.5% lactose. Heavy cream has about 3.0% lactose. For most people, therefore, a splash of cream in their coffee contains too little lactose to be concerned about.
 
Eggnog: Just to be completist, I should mention eggnog, officially a concoction of milk products, egg yolk, egg white ingredients, nutritive carbohydrate sweetener, and possibly salt, flavoring, color additives, and stabilizers. (Merry Christmas!) Anyway, commercial eggnog must contain at least 6% milkfat, or half again that of whole milk, so by the above rule of thumb, its lactose content should be a bit lower.
 

Dry Milks

Dry Milk: Just about any fluid milk product can have the water removed and turned into a dry milk. These show up in ingredient lists of commercial products all the time, because they save weight and because most recipes tell you to add water at home anyway. Since milk is mostly water, you might expect that when you take away the water, what's left is mostly lactose. You'd be exactly right. Most dry milks, including nonfat dry milk, instant nonfat dry milk, and dry buttermilk, run a good 50% lactose. Dry whole milk, because of its higher fat content, is a bit less, but still has 36% to 38% lactose. If you see any of these high up on an ingredients list, be warned.
 

Concentrated Milks

Concentrated Milk: There are three kinds. Evaporated milk (or evaporated skimmed) has twice the lactose of milk, about 10% to 11%. Sweetened condensed milk is even higher, about 11% to 16%. Concentrated milk (sometimes called condensed milk even though it's very different from sweetened condensed) is intended only for bulk use by industry, and has about 15% lactose.
 

Soured Milks

Sour Milk: Most cultures have a traditional soured milk, which can sometimes be found in health food stores. Kefir was fermented mare's milk; kumiss came from camels; airan from yaks. These distinctions don't always hold today, and commercial kefir is as likely to come from a cow. The good news is that their lactose contents are some 50-80% lower than regular cow's milk. The bad news, at least for some, is that the acidification process also produces alcohol, and they can have an alcohol content of 1.5% to 2.5%, or about half that of beer.
 

Butter and Margarine

Butters: You can't put a pretty face on butter: butter is pure fat. Well, almost pure. A trace of lactose is usually left. Let's put this in proportion, though. Butter has no more than 1% lactose. You'd have to spread your way though seven tablespoons of butter, nearly all of a quarter pound stick, just to eat one single gram of lactose. And one gram ain't much. (A cup of milk contains 12.) Worry about the fat in butter before considering its lactose. Same deal with margarine. Milk-free margarines do exist, but even the others are either mostly fat, or fat mixed with air and/or water to get the total fat content down. None contains enough lactose to be noticeable except, as always, to those rare individuals who truly have to watch every molecule.
Butteroil: Take all the water and the nonfat milk solids out of butter and what's left is butteroil, almost 100% pure butterfat. Actually 99.6% since a trace of moisture and protein is left. Typically, however, there is no lactose left in butteroil.
Ghee: Ghee is made by straining all the milk solids out of liquid butter. Properly prepared ghee should be virtually totally free of any lactose. It may even be free of milk proteins, but it should be avoided by those with serious milk protein allergies, as only a few molecules of protein can trigger some attacks.
 

Cultured Milk Products

You culture milk by adding bacterial cultures. You acidify milk by souring it with an acid. Sounds simple, but it gets complicated in practice. Some acidified milk also has been cultured. Some milks that were traditionally acidified now are sold in supermarkets only in cultured form because the taste was too strong for most people. Unfortunately, the difference can be important to the lactose percentage. I'll try to straighten it all out for you.
 
Acidophilus Milk: There are two types of acidophilus milk, which has created endless confusion and lots of misinformation being spread to those of us who are LI. In olden days, people added a bacteria (Lactobacillus acidophilus, hence the name) to milk and incubated it until a soft curd formed, giving the milk a pronounced cooked or acidic flavor. This was knows as fermented acidophilus milk or acidophilus cultured milk. Fermenting milk lowers the lactose content. The longer the fermentation period the lower the lactose - and the sourer the milk.
 
Sweet Acidophilus Milk: Most people don't like their milk that sour, so a new process was invented that grows the bacterial culture first and then adds to it cold milk. This product, called Sweet Acidophilus Milk (SAM), is the one you'll find in supermarkets today. It does not have a lower lactose percentage and experiments show that it is not tolerated any better than regular milk. Even so, many older LI fact sheets say that it is okay to drink acidophilus milk. Don't be fooled: unless you can find the traditional variety in a health food store, treat acidophilus with the same caution as you would any other milk, because it has exactly the same lactose content.
 
Cultured Buttermilk: Same story as above. Once buttermilk was the low lactose liquid left over when cream was churned into butter. Today's buttermilk is a totally different, cultured product. Because it usually has dry milk solids added in the process, it tends to run a bit lower in lactose than regular milk. Sources put it as 3.6% to 5.0% lactose.
 
Sour Cream: Sour cream is both cultured and fermented, so it has a slightly lower lactose content than milk, about 3.0% to 4.3%. (Variants include acidified sour cream, sour (or cultured) half-and-half, and acidified sour half-and-half. From their fat percentages, I'd guess they are similar in lactose content to sour cream.)
 
Yogurt: If you throw acidophilus bacteria into milk you get fermented acidophilus milk. If you throw in yogurt bacteria instead, yogurt is the result. Yogurt is an ancient product, going back at least to the ancient Assyrians, who called it lebeny, their word for "life" itself. As you might have guessed by now, true old-fashioned yogurt, like the kind you can still make at home, is a fermented and sour product, with a fairly low lactose content.
 
Of course, Americans hate anything sour and the stuff with candy in it you buy in the supermarket carries just the barest resemblance to the traditional product. For one thing, even though the yogurt bacteria make their own lactase and so reduce the lactose content of the product, milk solids are often added by commercial processors, driving the lactose back up again. In fact, whole milk yogurt has been gauged at 4.1% to 4.7%, almost exactly that of whole milk. The low-fat yogurts come in so many guises (with fruit, or nuts, or granola, or candy bits, or steak and french fries for all I know) that sources give a range of 1.9% to 6.0% lactose, too big to be meaningful as a guideline.
 
A couple of hints, though.
 
Since the milk solids drive up the lactose percentage, it's better to buy the brands that don't add them. How do you know? Check the ingredients list for anything other than milk itself. One brand I just found in the my local supermarket had nonfat milk solids, whey and whey protein concentrate all added to it. It may be great yogurt for all I'll ever know, but don't expect to tolerate it as well as another brand with none of these ingredients. (Warning: if you don't know what whey products are, check out the Whey section immediately.)
 
You also want to be sure that your yogurt has live and active yogurt cultures. (It will say so right on the carton, if so. You can also look for the National Yogurt Association's Live and Active Cultures logo.) Why do you want live and active cultures? Because these cultures have the amazing ability of being able to survive the trip through our stomachs and continue to make lactase even in our digestive tracts. Just by themselves they can digest about a third of the lactose in yogurt. Since most of us have some lactase production left ourselves, yogurt is probably the best tolerated of the relatively high lactose dairy products.
 
Not all yogurts have live and active cultures, though. Some have been heat-treated after fermentation. This kills the cultures, although the yogurt is perfectly fine in every other way. But these yogurts will be tolerated no better than you tolerate regular milk.
 

Frozen Milks

Ice Creams: Let's see. There's hard pack ice cream, which comes in superpremium and regular and cheapo varieties, depending upon how much air gets pumped into them, and regular soft ice cream and soft serve, and frozen custard, also known as french ice cream, and ice milk, whose only difference from ice cream is that it contains less fat, each of them can have syrups and nuts and cookies and candies thrown in, and you want me to give you a nice neat lactose percentage?
 
Good luck.
 
One study came up with a figure of 6% to 7% for plain old vanilla ice cream, and another, looking at more varieties, found a range of 3.4% to 8.4%. So if you think of ice cream having a little more lactose in it than milk, you're probably not far off, but there is simply no way of being exact about what's in the cone or dish you order.
 
Sherbet: Sherbets, on the other hand, has huge amounts of sugar added to them for sweetness. Accordingly, they contain less lactose than ice cream, only about 0.6% to 2.1%.
 

Cheeses

There are about seventeen million different kinds of cheeses in the world, but I'm going to make life as simple as possible for you by boiling them all down into three categories. But first, a five-second primer on how to make cheese.
 
Okay, start with milk. Any kind, cow's, goat's, sheep's, whatever. Then add an enzyme called rennet (traditionally produced from the linings of cow stomachs). The rennet coagulates the milk protein casein, which separates the milk into a semi-soft solid, the curds, and a liquid, the whey.
 
(Bonus points for everybody who just started thinking about Little Miss Muffet.) Most of the lactose stays with the whey, but some of it gets trapped inside the curds. That's it, really, for our purposes.
 
Cheese Type 1: Whey cheeses aren't real common in this country except for the one we know under its Italian name of ricotta (aka recuit and serac in France and Quarg in Germany). Elsewhere, different types of whey cheeses include the Scandinavian mysost and the Mediterranean skuta or noor. Whey cheese have the highest lactose content of any cheese, up to a full 5%.
 
Cheese Type 2: Casein cheeses break down into two categories, ripened and unripened. Stopping the cheesemaking process just after the curd separates gives us the familiar soft (i.e., unripened) cheeses, like cream cheese, Neufchatel, cottage cheese, pot cheese, and farmer cheese. Since nothing's been done to remove the trapped lactose, their lactose content is moderately high: around 2.5% to 3.5%.
 
Cheese Type 3: All the rest of those millions of cheeses are ripened casein cheeses. The more whey that is removed from the curds, the firmer the cheese and the lower the lactose content. In addition, these cheeses are aged, and the longer the aging, the less the lactose. Aged cheeses have low to very low lactose contents. Some sources even state that they have zero lactose. I don't know if I'd bet my intestines on that, but if you're looking for a calcium source to munch on, a good aged cheese is your best bet. All sources have found some lactose in all cheeses, but here's a list of ones that somebody has stated to be zero lactose: blue, brick, brie, camembert, cheddar, edam, gouda, liederkranz, limburger, mozzarella, muenster, provolone, and swiss.
 
Processed Cheeses and other fakes: Process cheese, according to the loving recipe given in the Code of Federal Regulations, is "the food prepared by comminuting [mincing] and mixing, with the aid of heat, one or more cheeses of the same or two or more varieties... for manufacturing with an emulsifying agent prescribed by paragraph (c) of this section into a homogeneous plastic mass." There's also Process cheese food and Process cheese spread. They all start with cheese, but more to the point, all the ones I looked in my local supermarket had added whey, so they may be even higher in lactose than whey cheeses. Same deal with the wonderfully named Artificial Flavored Pasteurized Process Slices, which is imitation cheese made by substituting vegetable oil for the milkfat in Process cheese. They all have whey added as well, as far as I can tell.
 

Wheys

(or better yet: WARNING! WHEY! WARNING! WHEY! WARNING!)
 
Whey: Why all the bells and whistles? Because whey is the milk product that fewest people know anything about, yet represents the greatest danger to the Lactose Intolerant. Remember above when I talked about cheesemaking separating milk into solid curds and liquid whey? Well, manufacturers don't like to waste all that good milk stuff. They don't like transporting heavy gallons of what's mostly water either. So they boil it down to get a white powder that is technically dry whey, but everybody calls just plain whey. And what is in just plain whey?
 
Lactose. Nearly pure lactose. (In fact, pure commercial lactose comes from highly refined whey.)
 
Now pretend you're in the food processing business. You want to have all that good milk protein and nutrients and flavor in your product, but it's a highly competitive world out there and you also want to shave a few pennies off the final cost. Whey, as a by-product of cheesemaking, something that used to just get thrown away as useless, is pretty cheap stuff, yet provides most everything that milk gives a recipe. Is it any wonder that whey is now used wherever you might use milk in a home-baked recipe? Whey is in breads and cakes and crackers and doughnuts. And in candies and chocolate coatings. And in ice creams and sherbets. And in sour cream and yogurt. And in salad dressings and soups and puddings. And in baby foods and sauces and gravies. And in places that you would never believe, and certainly never suspect. Jams and jellies. Hot dogs and sausages. Table syrup. Beer. Water ices.
 
Whey may be the product of the future for food processors, but it's a royal pain to us. (Try to find a whey-free commercial cookie without spending a half-hour hunting through the entire cookie aisle.) Anyway, whey high up on an ingredients list is a red flag that lots of lactose is waiting therein. So is lactose, for that matter. There are a large number of commercial foods that actually contain pure lactose as an ingredient. Be very careful around these. (On the other hand, just as many products show whey in the less than 2% category: these you probably don't have to worry about if that's the only milk product on the list.)
 
Here's a list of whey products you might see in an ingredients list.
  • Dry-whey (sweet-type): 63.0-75.0% lactose.
  • Dry-whey (acid-type): 61.0-70.0%.
  • Whey powder (sweet or acid): 70-75%
  • Reduced lactose whey: 52.0-58.0%.
  • Reduced minerals whey: 70.0-80.0%.
  • Whey protein concentrate: 10.0-55.0%.
  • Whey protein isolate: 0.5% This exists for no other reason than to confuse those of us trying to make sense of food labels. And 0.5% is a maximum amount. You can even see whey protein isolate on a product marked lactose-free. It's the best whey for us there is. Unfortunately, it's extremely rare compared to the other types of whey.
  • Milk protein concentrate: 7.5%
  • Milk Protein Isolate: 0.2% These are very similar to the whey proteins except that they contain a mixture of the whey and the casein proteins. And, like the whey, they exist in a number of versions with different protein contents. The lactose percentages I list are typical values, but may vary according to protein content.
 
(A tip of the hat to the American Dairy Products Institute for providing me with all this info about whey.)
 

Other

 
Nisin: Nisin (pronounced NYE-sin) is a protein antibiotic used for the last 40 or so years as a food preservative. It's produced by fermentation using the bacterium Lactococcus lactis from a milk base. As a commericial additive it's about 24% milk solids, meaning that it needs to be watched by both those with lactose intolerance and those with milk protein allergies.
 
Caseinates: Almost everything about milk is confusing at first. For example, there are two types of milk proteins. Whey is one, casein is the other. The caseins are usually found in the form of caseinates. Most common are sodium or calcium casein, but you may also see potassium or even aluminum caseinate.

None of these in the pure form should bother anyone with LI in the slightest. (People with milk allergies must avoid several of them, however.) The problem is that if the manufacturing process isn't complete, then some lactose may remain in the casein. Not much, maybe a percent or so, but it can happen. This should not be enough to cause anyone distress. Remember, we are talking about 1% of an amount that is probably extremely tiny to begin with. Nobody uses casein the way they use flour.

Fortunately, most manufacturers are being much more careful about casein today. You will often see "not a source of lactose" next to the casein on an ingredients label. If even the thought if ingesting lactose bothers you, then stick to these products. Otherwise don't worry.

 
Lactalbumin:
Lactoglobulin:
Whey I talk about above, but you might also see some whey components like lactalbumin or lactoglobulin on a label.

 
Lactates:
Lactic Acid:
Lactones:
Lactylates:
And then there are the additives whose names begin with "lac," mostly for historic reasons. For the most part, none of them are milk or even are derived from milk in modern manufacturing techniques.

For much more on these potentially worrysome names, see my Dairy or Nondairy? The Experts Speak page.

    




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