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Cover of Lactose Intolerance and Health

Lactose Intolerance and Health

Evidence Reports/Technology Assessments, No. 192

Investigators: , MD, MPH, , MD, MPH, , MD, MS, , PhD, MPH, , MS, , BS, , BS, , MD, , MD, and , MD.

Author Information and Affiliations
Rockville (MD): Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (US); .
Report No.: 10-E004

Structured Abstract


We systematically reviewed evidence to determine lactose intolerance (LI) prevalence, bone health after dairy-exclusion diets, tolerable dose of lactose in subjects with diagnosed LI, and management.

Data Sources:

We searched multiple electronic databases for original studies published in English from 1967-November 2009.

Review Methods:

We extracted patient and study characteristics using author’s definitions of LI and lactose malabsorption. We compared outcomes in relation to diagnostic tests, including lactose challenge, intestinal biopsies of lactase enzyme levels, genetic tests, and symptoms. Fractures, bone mineral content (BMC) and bone mineral density (BMD) were compared in categories of lactose intake. Reported symptoms, lactose dose and formulation, timing of lactose ingestion, and co-ingested food were analyzed in association with tolerability of lactose. Symptoms were compared after administration of probiotics, enzyme replacements, lactose-reduced milk and increasing lactose load.


Prevalence was reported in 54 primarily nonpopulation based studies (15 from the United States). Studies did not directly assess LI and subjects were highly selected. LI magnitude was very low in children and remained low into adulthood among individuals of Northern European descent. For African American, Hispanic, Asian, and American Indian populations LI rates may be 50 percent higher in late childhood and adulthood. Small doses of lactose were well tolerated in most populations. Low level evidence from 55 observational studies of 223,336 subjects indicated that low milk consumers may have increased fracture risk. Strength and significance varied depended on exposure definitions. Low level evidence from randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of children (seven RCTs) and adult women (two RCTs) with low lactose intake indicated that dairy interventions may improve BMC in select populations. Most individuals with LI can tolerate up to 12 grams of lactose, though symptoms became more prominent at doses above 12 grams and appreciable after 24 grams of lactose; 50 grams induced symptoms in the vast majority. A daily divided dose of 24 grams was generally tolerated. We found insufficient evidence that use of lactose reduced solution/milk, with lactose content of 0–2 grams, compared to a lactose dose of greater than 12 grams, reduced symptoms of lactose intolerance. Evidence was insufficient for probiotics (eight RCTs), colonic adaptation (two RCTs) or varying lactose doses (three RCTs) or other agents (one RCT). Inclusion criteria, interventions, and outcomes were variable. Yogurt and probiotic types studied were variable and results either showed no difference in symptom scores or small differences in symptoms that may be of low clinical relevance.


There are race and age differences in LI prevalence. Evidence is insufficient to accurately assess U.S. population prevalence of LI. Children with low lactose intake may have beneficial bone outcomes from dairy interventions. There was evidence that most individuals with presumed LI or LM can tolerate 12–15 grams of lactose (approximately 1 cup of milk). There was insufficient evidence regarding effectiveness for all evaluated agents. Additional research is needed to determine LI treatment effectiveness.


Prepared for: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.1 Contract No. 290-2007-10064-I. Prepared by: Minnesota Evidence-based Practice Center, Minneapolis, MN.

Suggested citation:

Wilt TJ, Shaukat A, Shamliyan T, Taylor BC, MacDonald R, Tacklind J, Rutks I, Schwarzenberg SJ, Kane RL, and Levitt M. Lactose Intolerance and Health. No. 192 (Prepared by the Minnesota Evidence-based Practice Center under Contract No. HHSA 290-2007-10064-I.) AHRQ Publication No. 10-E004. Rockville, MD. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. February 2010.

This report is based on research conducted by the Minnesota Evidence-based Practice Center (EPC) under contract to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), Rockville, MD (Contract No. HHSA 290-2007-10064-I). The findings and conclusions in this document are those of the authors, who are responsible for its content, and do not necessarily represent the views of AHRQ. No statement in this report should be construed as an official position of AHRQ or of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The information in this report is intended to help clinicians, employers, policymakers, and others make informed decisions about the provision of health care services. This report is intended as a reference and not as a substitute for clinical judgment.

This report may be used, in whole or in part, as the basis for the development of clinical practice guidelines and other quality enhancement tools, or as a basis for reimbursement and coverage policies. AHRQ or U.S. Department of Health and Human Services endorsement of such derivative products may not be stated or implied.

No investigators have any affiliations or financial involvement (e.g., employment, consultancies, honoraria, stock options, expert testimony, grants or patents received or pending, or royalties) that conflict with material presented in this report.


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Bookshelf ID: NBK44616


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