The Consumer Education Project of Milk SA

What is lactose intolerance?

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Lactose intolerance is not a milk allergy, but a digestive disturbance caused by an inability to digest lactose (milk sugar) due to lactase enzyme deficiency. Symptoms include abdominal pain, discomfort, bloatedness, flatulence, cramping and diarrhoea. It should not prevent you from having a healthy, balanced diet that includes some milk and dairy products.

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Lactose intolerance is not a milk allergy, but a gastrointestinal disturbance that happens after consuming more lactose than the body can handle. It is merely the inability to digest lactose, the sugar naturally found in milk and milk products.

Lactose consists of two sugar components, namely glucose and galactose, bound together. During normal digestion, the body produces an enzyme called lactase to separate these two sugar components, so that they can be absorbed into the blood. If the body does not produce enough of the enzyme, the two sugar units cannot be separated and the milk sugar then starts to ferment. This fermentation process may lead to the formation of acid and gas, while the body may simultaneously attempt to dilute the concentration of the lactose by reabsorbing water from the blood. This can cause vomiting and diarrhoea.

Lactose intolerance should not prevent you from having a healthy, balanced diet that includes milk and dairy products. Most people who are lactose intolerant can tolerate up to 12 g of lactose in a single dose and experience few or no symptoms. However, intakes exceeding 12 g lactose in a single dose (typically 250 ml milk) may lead to symptoms such as abdominal pain, discomfort, bloatedness, flatulence, cramping and diarrhoea in people who are lactose intolerant. Consuming small quantities of milk at a time or having milk together with other foods will help to ease possible discomfort. In fermented dairy products such as yoghurt or maas (amasi) some of the lactose is already broken down, which improves the digestion and symptoms of lactose intolerance. Cheeses such as Gouda and Cheddar contain virtually no lactose and should not have any adverse effect.

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