Intolerance, health benefits and ethical concerns are all inspiring the rising popularity of lactose-free alternatives in Southern Europe.
Lactose intolerance is a common health issue defined by insufficient production of lactase – the enzyme required to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk and other dairy products. Symptoms range from bloating to nausea and stomach cramps. The condition is prevalent across Southern Europe, with a ProCon study showing that 29% of people in Spain, 36% of people in France and an astonishing 72% of Italians are affected. This is the most common reason for excluding lactose from one’s diet, although some people also do so for other health or ethical reasons.
Other reasons for avoiding lactose
In addition to alleviating the symptoms of lactose intolerance (a condition that cannot be cured but is remedied by cutting out or limiting consumption of dairy products), going lactose-free has several other health benefits. These include lower cholesterol levels, a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, better skin and reduced exposure to the antibiotics and hormones frequently given to dairy cows.
For others, the decision to cut out dairy is an ethical one triggered by the poor living conditions and inhumane practices often associated with cattle farming. These include artificial insemination (to trigger milk production) and the early separation of calves from their mothers. Additionally, cattle farming is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions – making the decision to avoid dairy an environmental one, too.
Lactose-free dairy alternatives
For those who are lactose intolerant, lactose-free cow’s milk has the most similar taste, texture and nutritional profile. It is produced by adding lactase to regular cow’s milk and can be used to replace milk in recipes and in the production of lactose-free yoghurt, cheese, butter and other dairy products. However, it is still derived from cattle and is therefore unsuitable for those choosing a vegan diet for ethical or environmental reasons.
If you want to avoid dairy completely, a huge variety of lactose-free milks are entirely plant-based. The most common in Southern Europe are soya, almond and rice milk – but possible alternatives range from oat to coconut, hazelnut or hemp milk. These ingredients are also the foundation of many lactose-free cheeses and other products.
Tips for living lactose-free
These days, lactose-free and vegan diets have become so mainstream that excluding dairy from your diet is relatively easy. Many restaurants have menus with a nutritional key that shows at a glance which dishes are suitable for your specific dietary requirement. If this isn’t the case and you feel uncertain asking about ingredients in another language, you can always play it safe and eat in a vegan restaurant where menu items by definition will not contain dairy.
When cooking at home, a quick Google search reveals countless lactose-free recipes. Alternatively, you could learn which products make good substitutes for common dairy ingredients and use those to customise regular recipes. Examples include soy milk instead of cow’s milk, coconut milk yoghurt in place of regular yoghurt, vegetable-based margarine instead of butter, and nut-based cheese or nutritional yeast instead of regular cheese.
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