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Lactose intolerance: Shopping tips for lactose-intolerant people

Created: ; Last Update: November 29, 2018; Next update: 2021.

People who are sensitive to lactose need to read the labels on food packaging very carefully. Read on to find out what to watch for when shopping and how much lactose is found in different foods.

All packaged foods have a label on them with information such as:

  • the best before date,
  • all of the ingredients,
  • ingredients that commonly trigger allergies or food intolerances, and
  • the nutritional content and calories.

Labeling for packaged food

Food labeling regulations state which information has to be included on food packaging. For people who are lactose intolerant, the list of ingredients is most important. It contains the following information:

  • A list of all the ingredients according to their percentage of the total weight, in descending order: The main ingredient is at the top, and the ingredient found in the smallest amount is listed at the bottom.
  • A list of all additives, such as emulsifiers, preservatives, coloring and flavoring agents.
  • Labeling of allergens: There are particularly strict regulations concerning the labeling of the main ingredients that can cause allergies or sensitive reactions. Currently, 14 substances and products must be labeled as potential allergens. These include things like soy, wheat, eggs, milk, peanuts, almonds and walnuts. Such ingredients have to be specifically highlighted by using a different typeface, text style (e.g. bold type), or background color.
  • It is enough to indicate that a product contains milk or lactose, without specifying the exact amount.

What words should I watch for in the ingredients?

You should be careful and take a closer look at the amounts if any of the following are listed as an ingredient:

  • Dry milk solids
  • Lactose
  • Lactose monohydrate

Products that contain no lactose

Plant-based milk substitutes that contain no lactose exist, even though they are sometimes referred to as milk. They are made from:

  • Almonds
  • Soy
  • Rice
  • Oats

The following ingredients also do not contain any lactose:

  • Lactate (lactic acid)
  • Lactilol – a sugar substitute
  • Lactic acid
  • Milk protein
  • Lactic acid bacteria / fermented lactic acid (for example in sauerkraut)
  • Baking agents / binding agents / starch / thickening agents

If you have any typical lactose intolerance symptoms after eating food you have previously not had any trouble with, it is worth checking the list of ingredients. Manufacturers sometimes change their product recipes.

How much lactose is in different foods?

This table can help you get a rough idea of how much lactose is in different foods. You can also calculate how much lactose you are getting every day:

Butter, margarine, and other fats

Food productServing sizeLactose in grams per serving
Butter20 g0.1
LardAny amount0
MargarineAny amount0
Vegetable fats and oils including coconut oil Any amount0

Cheese

Food productServing sizeLactose in grams per serving
Mozzarella 20% fat in dry matter100 g3.3
Mascarpone30 g1
Cottage cheese30 g1
Cream cheese30 g0.9
Parmesan cheese30 g0
Most hard cheeses and sliced cheeses such as Emmentaler, Gouda, Edam or Tilsit 30 g0

Milk-containing coffee, cream, and crème fraîche

Food productServing sizeLactose in grams per serving
Latte macchiato125 ml5.4
Cappuccino125 ml2.9
Skimmed milk powder10 g5.1
Whole milk powder10 g3.5
A dash of milk30 ml1.4
Coffee creamer (7.5% fat)15 g0.8
Sour cream (10% fat)25 g0.9
Crème fraîche (30% fat)25 g0.6
Cream15 g0.5

Yogurt, quark cheese, buttermilk

Food productServing sizeLactose in grams per serving
Whey150 ml7.1
Buttermilk150 ml6
Soured milk150 g6
Yogurt150 g4.8
Kefir150 g5.4
Quark cheese30 g1

Lactose content changes when fruits are added. Fat content is also important: A high amount of fat means a lower amount of lactose.

Sweet foods: Chocolate, ice cream and cake

Food productServing sizeLactose in grams per serving
Milk chocolate20 g1.3
Ice cream75 g4.7
Fruit sorbet75 g1.3
Yeast-based cake with crumbles310 g3.1
Cream cheese cake120 g2
Croissant70 g1
Pound cake70 g0.3

Milk and milk substitutes

Food productServing sizeLactose in grams per serving
Milk 3.5% fat150 ml7.0
Sheep's milk150 ml6.6
Goat's milk150 ml6.3
Soy milkAny amount0

Lactose-reduced or lactose-free? Take a closer look

Some manufacturers use terms like "lactose-reduced" and "lactose-free" in their advertisements. The usage of these terms is currently not regulated by law. A product containing less than 0.1 g of lactose per 100 g may be called "lactose-free." Looking for the words "lactose-free" can save you the trouble of first checking the list of ingredients.

But because these terms aren't legally protected, products that don't contain any lactose naturally may be labeled as lactose-free for promotional purposes. There may be other, identical products without this label that are less expensive.

What should I keep in mind when buying foods without packaging?

In Europe, the EU Food Information Regulation specifies that companies must also provide information specifically on allergen content when selling unpackaged food. Unpackaged foods might include things like cake from a bakery, a sausage from a deli, or a restaurant meal. The information may be communicated in written form, such as on the menu or a separate information sheet. They can also be provided verbally. It may also be provided in electronic form, for instance on the business's website.

So it may be worth looking out for the product information you need or asking in the bakery or restaurant.

You can find more information on food labeling on the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture website.

Sources

  • American Heart Association (AHA). Understanding Food Nutrition Labels. March 06, 2018.
  • Bundesministerium für Ernährung und Landwirtschaft (BMEL). Allgemeine Kennzeichnungsvorschriften: Allergenkennzeichnung ist Pflicht. December 12, 2014.
  • Bundeszentrum für Ernährung (BZfE). Laktoseintoleranz. 2018.
  • Bundeszentrum für Ernährung (BZfE). Lebensmittel: Allergenkennzeichnung. August 09, 2017.
  • IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

    Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. We do not offer individual consultations.

    Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

© IQWiG (Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care)
Bookshelf ID: NBK310258

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