Our two experts bring more than 40 years’ combined experience to the table: Mary, with an extensive background in marketing, business, process and product development for the dairy industry; and Craig, a technical services manager at Novozymes, with research experience in the food industry, specializing in dairy and dough.
Now, let’s take it from the top. What is lactose tolerance, exactly?
MARY: Lactose intolerance just means that your body does not produce enough lactase in order to digest lactose, which is the sugar that’s found in milk. And because of this, basically, the lactose gets fermented in your colon instead and might create more gassiness or bloating, which could be uncomfortable.
CRAIG: So, to be clear, it actually isn’t an allergy.
How common is this issue?
CRAIG: Well, I’ve seen some estimates that it could be as high as 70% of the world’s population. There’s a strong genetic component to it. Some of the world’s most populous nations are in Asia, and the genetic makeup of the Asian population is more prone to lactose intolerance. What’s interesting is that we think lactose intolerance is a maldigestion or a problem that some people have. But, actually, the ability to digest lactose is the mutation. They call it the lactase persistence gene. They’ve identified exactly where it’s from, and it’s more prevalent in northern European populations.
It sounds like lactose intolerance varies quite a bit geographically. Do people who are lactose intolerant just stay away from dairy products entirely?
MARY: Many people do start to avoid dairy because of lactose intolerance concerns. And what happens is they have the unintended consequence of losing out on those key nutrients that dairy delivers, such as calcium, protein, various vitamins…
CRAIG: And of course dairy foods are some of the most delicious foods, and you wouldn’t want to miss out on that.
MARY: Exactly. And when you avoid these dairy foods, it leads to other shortfalls. So it could cause more susceptibility to chronic diseases such as osteoporosis, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes. It’s really important to consume these nutrients because your body can’t make them on its own.
That brings us around to lactose-free dairy products — how are consumers responding to these being available?
MARY: More and more households are purchasing and trying lactose-free products. In fact, in Europe, they’re experiencing double-digit growth. And, here in the U.S. in the last couple years, it’s grown over 29%.
CRAIG: And in developing markets, I think that’s where we’re going to see even more growth. It’s very underpenetrated at this point and we’re hopefully going to see an explosion of lactose-free options. That brings dairy to a population that, traditionally, has not had dairy as a core part of their daily diet.