Lactose is a sugar found mainly in milk, a fluid produced by mammals (including human) to nourish their infants. An infant mammal produces an enzyme called lactase, which allows them to digest the lactose during their nursing period. After weaning, the ability to digest lactose fades.
A lack of lactase prevents the body from digesting lactose, resulting in a condition called lactose intolerance. Because dairy animals were critical for the development of European civilization, people of European descent evolved to produce lactase into their adult years, thus maintaining their ability to consume milk. People of Asian descent have a high degree of lactose intolerance, as the developement of their civilization did not put as much emphasis on milk as food. Other groups that had high occurrence of milk consumption included India and parts of Eastern Africa.
In a recent article in Dairy Foods magazine (August 2011), writer Donna Berry makes a case for lactose as a more important nutrient than previously thought. According to the article, lactose is a complex sugar, and so is digested slower than other sugars by the body. That means that it is not as likely to covert to fat as “fast” sugars like those found in refined products. Further, lactose could be considered a fiber, as the action of the sugar in the gut of people that have low or no lactose tolerance is similar to the action of fiber. Because there is a tendency to over-consume lactose, the symptoms are much more severe, but a case could be made for balancing consumption with dietary needs to achieve positive results. One of the contributions of lactose to the digestive process is that it “feeds” the good bacteria that live in the gut, promoting better intestinal health.
It is very common for people with lactose intolerance to avoid eating cheese, believing that because cheese is a milk-based product, there will be lactose. Indeed, some people who suffer digestive distress from cheese consumption often blame the problems on lactose, but that is usually not the cause.
The first step in cheese making is acidification, which is achieved by converting the lactose to lactic acid. In all but the freshest of cheeses, all but an insignificant amount of lactose is converted to lactic acid, meaning that most cheese is almost lactose-free. People who have digestive problems with cheese probably have an intolerance for one of the milk proteins present in cheese (which may also be the cause of distress from drinking milk).
Lactose is a critical component of milk, our first food, and based on recent evidence, may play a larger role in good nutrition than previously considered. Cheese, while a milk product, does not contain any significant amount of lactose, and can usually be consumed by lactose intolerant people.
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