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No need to pass by cheese because of stomach pain

by Doris Penner

Creamy, smooth-tasting cheese is hard to pass up. A fixture on appetizer platters and a component of hot vegetable dishes and salads, cheese—which complements many foods—is a regular part of the Canadian diet. However, there are people who have difficulty digesting cheese, and consequently suffer from mild to severe gastrointestinal disturbance after ingesting it, experiencing symptoms such as cramping, gas, bloating, nausea or diarrhea. What is the solution to the problem? Does it mean saying goodbye to cheese forever?

The first item of business is to identify why eating cheese causes stomach pain. Indeed, for most people the reason is lactose intolerance which is characterized by the inability to digest lactose sugar—one of the major components of milk and other dairy products—due to the absence of the enzyme lactase. This condition may be hereditary which means infants are unable to digest breast milk—higher in lactose than cow’s milk. Other consumers develop intolerance as the amount of the lactase enzyme decreases with time, while a percentage of people are intolerant to lactose due to a digestive disorder such as Crohn’s disease. Others are allergic not to lactose but some other component in dairy such as casein protein or whey protein.

Whey is discarded

It should be noted that cheese in general is far lower in lactose than liquid milk. During the cheese making process, milk is thickened with rennet, and the whey—the yellowish liquid that separates from the solids—is discarded. Typically whey contains most of the lactose. The curds used to make soft cheeses such as Brie, for example, retain more of the whey than the curds used to make hard cheeses like Cheddar. The point is consumers who get sick after drinking milk or eating a soft cheese, may be able to ingest hard cheeses without a negative effect.

In addition, the longer a cheese ages, the less lactose remains in the final product. For example, some varieties of Parmesan, Romano, Cheddar and Gouda, aged anywhere from 12 months to 4 years, have very small amounts or even non-measurable levels of lactose. Some of these are, in fact, deemed lactose-free (check the labels).

People who have dealt with severe pain, bloating or gas after ingesting hard cheeses, may be hesitant to try regular cheese for fear of recurring symptoms. First of all, check with your physician to make sure you have lactose intolerance or if are dealing with some other allergy or intolerance. Lactose intolerance can be diagnosed with a fasting blood test, a breath test (measuring by-products of lactose digestion) or a stool test.

Taste and texture

If you seem to be intolerant to even small amounts of lactose—and don’t want to write off cheese—be assured there are non-dairy cheeses available. They are usually made from soy products and come in a large variety to mimic “real” cheeses. It must be recognized, of course, that the texture, taste and appearance of soy-based cheeses will not be as flavourful or moist as dairy cheese.

You may be wondering about lactose content of cheese prepared from yogurt. It is, of course, a dairy product but due to the culturing process, it contains less lactose than other “soft” cheeses. You may prepare your own cheese at home by straining yogurt through a cheesecloth for up to 24 hours. Again the whey—which contains much of the lactose—can be discarded.

There is one school of thought that recommends eliminating all dairy products including cheese from the Canadian diet. The rationale for this rather sweeping suggestion is the fact that milk and its products contain saturated fats (as all animal products do) which must be shunned at all costs (according to this group) since the fats raise LDL (bad) cholesterol. However, it is never a wise idea to shut out an entire food group from the diet since you are also shutting out a myriad of important nutrients your body needs. The answer is careful selection. In the case of dairy, choose low-fat options when possible and eat cheese in moderation since it is a concentrated source of fat. For lactose intolerant individuals, the next best thing is to seek out non-dairy cheeses.