I don’t know about you, but while I love milk and dairy products, they certainly don’t love me. Or more accurately, my body doesn’t love me when I consume dairy products, and it lets me know in no uncertain terms when I’ve had too much, usually in spectacularly unpleasant ways. What can I say? Lactose is my frenemy…and according to the Canadian Digestive Heath Foundation, I’m not alone.
There are approximately 7 million Canadians who also suffer from lactose intolerance in varying severity, either through genetics, diet, or cultural norms, and, depending on who you believe, articles from USA Today to the National Dairy Council to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine estimate that 60% to 75% of the world’s population has some form of lactose intolerance.
What Is Lactose Intolerance? How Is It Different From a Milk Allergy?
The difference between an intolerance and an actual allergy is that a food intolerance is when you develop symptoms after eating a food that your body can’t cope with effectively, but it does not involve an immune (histamine) response. An allergy, in this case to milk, is an abnormal and heightened response of the immune system to the milk proteins casein and whey (casein is the curd that forms when milk is left to sour, and whey is the watery part that is left after the curd is removed). Symptoms of a milk allergy reaction can range from mild, such as hives, to severe, such as anaphylaxis. Those with milk allergies should definitely stay away from lactose in all its forms, and in fact it’s recommended that sufferers carry around an Epi-pen (Epinephrine auto-injector) at all times.
As for describing a lactose intolerance, simply put, lactose is the sugar found in milk products. Dairy products containing lactose are digested by the human body releasing an enzyme called lactase; individuals who are lactose intolerant lack this enzyme to break down this sugar for absorption. Undigested lactose tends to travel to the large bowel (colon) and may cause gas, bloating, diarrhea and abdominal cramping. Sometimes lactose intolerance occurs after digestive infections or by taking certain antibiotics to kill intestinal flora (the good bacteria in your gut).
What Are the Symptoms of Lactose Intolerance?
Between 30 minutes and 2 hours after eating a dairy product, you will likely have one or more of these symptoms, which may range from mild to severe.
- Painful gas
Not fabulously exciting after-effects of having a cheese cube, are they? Many people living with severe lactose-intolerance and allergies have no choice but to not only give up dairy altogether, but to also be their own strident advocates for their health, being sure to very carefully read the nutrition labels on every food item and interrogate waitstaff at every restaurant in order to ensure that food manufacturers and chefs are not sneaking dairy ingredients into their products under other names.
If you only suffer from mild to moderate lactose intolerance, it is often possible to manage these unpleasant symptoms by supplementing your dairy intake with an oral lactase enzyme, which is available in pill or liquid form. I don’t recommended taking these pills, as good as they are, for those with severe intolerance…it could turn into a literal crapshoot (heh) if you get the dosage incorrect!
What Should I Look Out For If I’m Trying To Steer Clear Of Dairy In My Food?
While this is a very good list of dairy ingredients and their other names, it is by no means comprehensive, as the food manufacturing industry is changing all the time, and new products and food ingredients/additives are constantly being developed with fancy new names that further complicate, obfuscate, and confuse the average consumer. With many thanks to Go Dairy Free for this list!
Not All Dairy Is Alike
Happily for those die-hard lovers of dairy products (*cough CHEESE cough*), even those with mild to moderate lactose intolerance can usually tolerate a certain amount of dairy. In addition, there are some dairy products that have less lactose in them than others, and therefore may be easier to digest (see infographic below). Everyone is different, however, and for those with severe lactose intolerance, try these at your own risk!
How Can I Substitute Dairy Products in My Recipes?
Due to a current surge in popularity in vegan and paleo lifestyles, as well as a better understanding of lactose intolerance, there are many non-dairy ingredient options on the market these days that can be substituted for dairy products. Of course, this is far easier in cooking recipes than baking (as cooking is an art, whereas baking is a science), but it’s still possible to substitute with minimal flavour alteration. Where there are special instructions to use the substituted ingredient, I’ve marked them with square brackets  and a number, and provided more information below.
- Butter: [dairy-free/vegan margarine]¹, unsweetened applesauce, [extra virgin olive oil, canola. soy, grapeseed oil]², unrefined coconut oil, mashed avocado, mashed bananas, prune purée.
- Sour Cream: soy-based yogurt, sour “cream”, puréed silken tofu.
- Milk: There are so many dairy-free milks available these days, it’s a real plethora of choice! From your traditional [soy milk, rice milk]³ and almond milk, there is now cashew milk, coconut milk, pistachio milk, macadamia nut milk, oat milk, and even hemp milk! Try different milks to find your favourites.
- Buttermilk: Use any of the above milks; 1 tsp white vinegar per 1 cup of milk; stir and warm slightly to encourage “curdling”.
- Evaporated Milk: Evaporated milk is milk that has water content reduced by 60%. Simmer any quantity of soy or rice milk in a pan until it reduces by 60% to get evaporated milk. Approximately 3 cups of rice or soy milk will reduce to 1 cup of evaporated milk (be careful not to scald it). Another alternative is to substitute premium high-fat coconut milk 1:1; shake the container well prior to measuring.
- Sweetened Condensed Milk: mix one cup of evaporated milk with 1¼ cups of sugar. Heat slowly until the sugar is completely dissolved. Cool. It will yield 1½ cups of sweetened condensed milk substitute. It will keep in the refrigerator for several days.
- Light cream: light or “lite” tinned coconut milk, soy creamer, coconut-based creamers, almond-based creamers.
- Heavy Cream (not whipping cream): Full fat coconut milk can be substituted 1:1 for heavy cream. Note that a coconut milk substitute will impart a distinct but not unpleasant coconut flavor to a recipe, so only substitute this if that would aid and not hinder the taste of the final product.
- Whipped Cream: It is possible to whip coconut milk into a cream, although the loft from beating doesn’t last as long as dairy cream, and it’s definitely trickier. Make sure the coconut milk is very cold, and the bowl and beaters are chilled for at least an hour in the fridge or freezer prior to whipping. There are also some excellent pre-made coconut whipped cream brands these days, where the dispensers are refrigerated and provide whipped cream under pressure. Also check in your area for availability of containers of non-dairy whipping cream.
- Milk Chocolate: dark chocolate, carob chips, dairy-free chocolate baking chips.
- Use stick rather than tub dairy free margarine, as tub margarines usually have extra water beaten/whipped into them; this will alter the ratio of liquids to solids in your baked goods, and subsequently may lead to more baking failures or a sub-optimal finished product.
- Oils can often be used in replacement of butter; however, if the original recipe requires the butter to be beaten with or without sugar, replacement of the butter with oil will not yield the same result; reduce the amount of oil by up to 25% of the total butter amount, and use extra time to whip the oil together with the sugar (if this is part of the recipe).
- Keep in mind that rice milk is thinner and soy milk is thicker than cow’s milk, so you may need to tweak the amount you use in cooking and baking.
So now that you know the dairy-free alternatives to your favourite recipes, go forth and experiment! Take pictures, haul in dairy-loving friends and family to taste test, and tweak those cherished ingredient lists until you find exactly the right combination to make the best food you can. Good luck!
With thanks to the following:
- National Dairy Council
- Go Dairy Free
- Canadian Digestive Health Foundation
- Kids With Food Allergies