Lactose Intolerance: What is it?

This post was written by our former intern Jaclyn Schermer who was a dietetic intern from the Keene State College in New Hampshire.

Setting the Scene: Birthday Cakes and Lactose Intolerance

It’s a hot summer day and everyone was at the beach celebrating my niece’s birthday. Then someone pulled out an ice cream cake.

I realized I forgot my lactase pills, which was a big deal considering I’m lactose intolerant.

The cake looked so good with a chocolate topping, vanilla ice cream, peanuts, and an Oreo crust…

I chose to go for it and quickly grabbed a slice. Thirty minutes later, the usual feelings of gut discomfort hadn’t yet appeared. I then realized that the homemade cake was lactose-free!

Girl eating ice cream

What is Lactose Intolerance?

Lactose intolerance is when the body doesn’t produce enough of the lactase enzyme. Lactase is like a pair of scissors in the small intestine that cuts lactose (the natural dairy sugar) in half. Without lactase, the dairy sugar remains intact and travels to the large intestine (the colon) where it’s feasted on by bacteria. Symptoms of this feast include bloating, diarrhea, gas, and abdominal pain.

Diagram of the small and large intestines.
Source: The Mayo Clinic

What Dairy Foods are Low in Lactose?

You don’t have to give up ice cream cake, yogurt, smoothies, or macaroni and cheese, but you do have to be smart about it. On average, someone with lactose intolerance can consume up to 10 grams of lactose with minimal-to-no symptoms.

Since fluid milk is high in lactose, it’s usually the first item to go. However, keep in mind what else you’re eating during a meal or snack. Pairing cereal with nuts and a half-cup of milk may be better tolerated by some.

Hard cheeses also have lower lactose levels. The University of Virginia Health System’s lists out levels via this helpful chart:

Lactose Content in Foods - Chart
Source: University of Virginia Health System Digestive Health Center.

Recipe Hack: Reduce the Lactose, Enjoy the Ice Cream Cake

Ice Cream Cake

Serves: 15-20

Ingredients:

  • 1-½ cups powdered sugar
  • 1 cup + 2 tbsp. lactose-free milk
  • 2 tbsp. vegetable oil
  • ½ cup lactose-free chocolate chips
  • ¼ tsp. vanilla
  • ½ cup butter, melted
  • 1-½ cups Oreos, crushed
  • ½ gallon lactose-free ice cream
  • 1 cup peanuts

Directions:

  1. In a medium saucepan, combine the powdered sugar, milk, oil, and chocolate chips. Stirring constantly, bring the mixture to a boil.
  2. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla. Allow the mixture to cool.
  3. In a medium bowl, stir to combine the melted butter and crushed Oreos.
  4. To form the cake’s crust, press the Oreo mixture into either a 9X13-inch pan or two 8-inch round pans. Place in the freezer for 10 minutes or until the crust sets. While setting, remove the ice cream from the freezer  to thaw.
  5. Once set, remove the crust from the freezer and sprinkle the peanuts evenly over the crust Layer with ice cream. The top layer will be the cooled chocolate mixture. Use a spatula to smooth out the mixture.
  6. Freeze for 4 hours or until completely frozen.

Updated August 8, 2017