Lactose is also called milk sugar. It is found in all dairy products, such as milk, cheese, and yogurt. A naturally occurring enzyme called lactase is needed to digest lactose. As people age, their lactase production can decrease, causing a sensitivity to lactose.
Many types of cheese, however, naturally have very low or non-measurable amounts of lactose. How can you tell how much lactose a cheese contains?
Follow these general guidelines.
During the cheesemaking process, the milk is thickened and the whey (liquid) is drained from the curds (solids). Whey typically has more lactose in it than curds do. Since the whey is drained from the curds before cheese is made, this removes quite a bit of lactose. The curds used to make softer cheeses (like Brie) have more moisture (whey) in them than the curds used to make hard, dry cheeses like Cheddar. Therefore, soft cheeses tend to have more lactose than hard cheeses.
As cheese ages, it loses even more moisture. The longer a cheese has been aged, the less lactose will remain in the final product. If you're concerned about lactose, talk to your local cheesemonger about how long a cheese has been aged before buying it.
Examples of Low Lactose Cheese
According to Beemster, a producer of Dutch Gouda, "during the maturation process, the lactose changes into lactic acid." Beemster claims their Classic Gouda (matured 18 months) and XO Gouda (matured 26 months) are lactose-free.
However, some of their other varieties of Gouda that aren't aged as long do have traces of lactose. Cabot Creamery, a Cheddar producer, says, "Aged cheeses, such as Cabot's naturally aged cheddar contain 0 grams of lactose. In fact, unlike many other dairy products, cheese in general is very low in lactose.
Most contain less than 1 gram per serving and should not cause any lactose intolerance related symptoms."
Other cheese types that are aged for long periods of time and are likely to have very small or non-measurable levels of lactose include:
- Parmigiano-Reggiano (typically aged 12-24 months)
- Grana Padano (typically aged 12-20 months)
- Mimolette (typically aged 22 months)
- Romano (typically aged 3-4 years)
Example of Lactose-Free "Cheese"
There are also varieties of "cheese" made without dairy that contain no lactose at all. Although these types of cheese don't have the same flavor or texture as cheese made with milk, some people find them to be a fine substitute. The options include soy cheese, rice cheese, and almond cheese.
Another option is yogurt cheese. Although made from dairy, Cultured Way claims that their yogurt cheese is made from "...active yogurt cultures, acidophilus and bifidus, which remove the milk sugars during the cheese making and aging process."