Lactose in Cheese

One of the most frequently-asked questions we receive is which of our cheeses have no lactose. We are happy to reply that all of our cheeses are virtually lactose-free. Having read this, you may wonder how we do that: sell lactose-free cheeses.

The process of cheese making includes three steps that eliminate lactose. Milk that is left out on its own will sour. Lactic acid bacteria (so named for the product they yield) reside in the milk itself and consume the lactose. This acidification is usually enhanced by the addition of cultures in cheese making. Those cultures may be “mother” cultures created by soured milk set aside from the previous day (causing the reduction of lactose) or by commercially prepared cultures. Those cultures work more quickly than the mother cultures and yield more consistent results. Either type of culture used, the souring is necessary for cheese making, and the lactose is reduced. Added benefits of the reduced pH levels include the minimization of pathogenic contamination. The “bad” bugs are less inclined to settle in a more acid environment.

As that soured milk is coagulated into curds and whey, most of the remaining lactose is soluble in the whey. Most all cheeses are crafted from curds. Few cheeses are made from the whey, ricotta being the best known. As the whey is drained away, and/or pressed out, the young curd may retain a little lactose, however most of it is eliminated by this point: either through the acidification or through the elimination with the whey.

Young cheeses sour gracefully as they ripen, further reducing whatever lactose remains. By the time a cheese is a couple of weeks old the lactose is reduced by as much as 95%. All our cheeses are at least four weeks old which makes them virtually lactose free.

Sadly, there are some individuals that still have a low tolerance for cheeses. It is highly unlikely that lactose is the problem. For those people that claim to love cheese but still have adverse reactions, the most frequent cause is an allergic reaction to certain proteins in cow milk. I recommend that those persons stick with goat milk cheeses first. If they tolerate the goat cheeses I recommend that they try sheep milk. Those allergic reactions to cow milk are not necessarily life-long problems.

Milk contains lactose but cheese contains virtually none. When we are newborns we have enzymes in our digestive systems that metabolize lactose. Those enzymes are lost by some people as they move into adulthood.

I hope the lactose issue is clarified here. Sign up for Cheese & Wine 201 for more cheese nutrition factoids.

Max McCalman

Spread the curd!
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