If you've been down the dairy aisle lately, you know the number of milk alternatives is exploding. Lactose-free milk was one of the first in the category. Find out what it is, how lactose-free milk is made, and if it's the right choice for you.

By Brierley Horton, MS, RD
March 27, 2019

You’ve seen it nestled alongside the regular milk in the dairy aisle at your grocery store, but exactly what is lactose-free milk? First things first: It is still milk. Real milk that came from a cow. So lactose-free milk is not dairy-free milk. It delivers all of the same good-for-you nutrients—vitamin D, calcium, and protein—that cow’s milk with lactose provides. And typically it’s ultrapasteurized, meaning it has a long shelf life (as long as you keep it refrigerated). The fact that it is still truly milk makes it different from the oat milks, banana milks, and many other milk alternatives available.

Lactose-Free Milk vs. Regular Milk

Traditional milk contains a natural sugar called lactose. If you've ever wondered, How is lactose-free milk made?, it comes down to eliminating that sugar. In lactose-free milk, the milk sugar has either been removed by filtering it out or is broken down into two simpler sugars that are easier to digest (companies do this by adding the enzyme lactase—the same enzyme people with lactose intolerance don't have enough of). When milk is made lactose-free by breaking down the lactose, some people think it tastes sweeter than regular milk. Commonly known lactose-free milk brands that use lactase to break down the lactose include Lactaid, Horizon Organic, and Fairlife.

What Is Lactose Intolerance?

Lactose is removed or broken down to make lactose-free milk for people who can’t tolerate regular milk—usually because their body doesn’t have enough lactase to break down lactose in dairy products. About 1 in 10 adults suffer from lactose intolerance. If  you easily tolerate drinking milk (or eating any other dairy), your body has a sufficient supply of lactase and there's no need to switch to lactose-free milk. But because the ability to tolerate and digest lactose typically wanes as we age, it’s possible that you can tolerate a set amount of milk, ice cream, cheese, and other dairy products, but larger amounts will have an adverse effect.

Common symptoms of lactose intolerance are abdominal pain, bloating, gas, or diarrhea after drinking milk or eating other dairy. There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to lactose intolerance, though, and those same symptoms also can be symptoms of other digestive disorders. It’s recommended that if you believe you are lactose intolerant, you should get tested by your doctor.

Related: DIY Almond Milk

Other Lactose-Free Milks to Try

If you’re not interested in lactose-free milk, you have ample options: The dairy-free “milk” aisle has expanded in recent years. Almost any dairy-free, plant-based milk alternative (hello, nut milks!) is safe to drink if you're avoiding lactose. So "milks" made from almonds, walnuts, soy, coconut, hemp, rice, cashew, banana, oat—or a blend of any of those—are all great lactose-free choices. One bit of caution, though: If you’re using powdered milk, the lactose is still there unless the product is specified as lactose-free milk powder. Powdered milk is just that—a dry version of regular dairy milk.

Related8 creative ways to use nut milks

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