People with lactose intolerance often avoid eating dairy products in an attempt to avoid unwanted, uncomfortable, or embarrassing side effects.

However, not all dairy foods are high in lactose. If you’re lactose intolerant, some foods could be safer than you think.

Lactose intolerance is a very common digestive problem. In fact, it affects around 75% of the world’s population. Interestingly, it’s most prevalent in Asia and South America, but much less common in parts of the Western world, including North America, Europe, and Australia, according to research from 2012.

Those who have it don’t have enough of an enzyme called lactase, found in the gut. Lactase is needed to break down lactose, the main sugar found in milk.

Without lactase, lactose can pass through the gut undigested and cause unpleasant symptoms, including:

  • nausea
  • pain
  • gas
  • bloating
  • diarrhea

Fear of developing these symptoms can lead people with this condition to avoid foods that contain lactose, such as dairy products. However, this isn’t always necessary, as not all dairy foods contain enough lactose to cause problems for people with an intolerance.

In fact, it’s thought that many people with an intolerance can eat up to 12 grams of lactose at a time without experiencing any symptoms. To put that in perspective, 12 grams is the amount found in 1 cup (230 ml) of milk.

Additionally, some dairy foods are naturally low in lactose. Below are 6 of them.

Butter is a high fat dairy product that’s made by churning cream or milk to separate its solid fat and liquid components.

The final product is around 80% fat, as the liquid part of milk, which contains all the lactose, is removed during processing.

This means that the lactose content of butter is really low. In fact, 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of butter contains only 0.1 grams of lactose.

Levels this low are unlikely to cause problems, even if you have an intolerance.

Butter made from fermented milk products and clarified butter products, such as ghee, contain even less lactose than regular butter.

So, unless you have another reason to avoid butter or need to use a large quantity, ditch the dairy-free spread.

Summary

Butter is a high fat dairy product that contains only trace amounts of lactose. This means it’s usually fine to include in your diet if you have lactose intolerance.

Cheese is made by adding bacteria or acid to milk and then separating the cheese curds that form from the whey.

Given that the lactose in milk is found in the whey, a lot of it is removed when cheese is being made.

However, the amount found in cheese can vary, and cheeses with the lowest amounts are the ones that have been aged the longest.

This is because the bacteria in cheese are able to break down some of the remaining lactose, lowering its content. The longer a cheese is aged, the more lactose the bacteria present is able to get rid of.

This means that aged, hard cheeses are often very low in lactose. For example, 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of cheddar cheese contains only trace amounts of it.

Cheeses that are low in lactose include Parmesan, Swiss, and cheddar. Moderate portions of these cheeses can often be tolerated by people with lactose intolerance.

Cheeses like pecorinos, made from sheep’s milk, are also naturally lower in lactose, as sheep’s milk has lower concentrations of lactose than cow’s milk.

Cheeses that tend to be higher in lactose include cheese spreads, soft cheeses like Brie or Camembert, cottage cheese, and mozzarella.

Even some higher lactose cheeses might not cause symptoms in small portions.

Summary

The amount of lactose can vary between different types of cheese. In general, cheeses that have been aged longer, such as cheddar, Parmesan, and Swiss, have low levels of lactose.

People with lactose intolerance often find yogurt much easier to digest than milk.

This is because most yogurts contain live bacteria that can help break down lactose, so your body has less to process on its own.

For example, one of the studies included in a 2014 review of papers on lactose digestion suggested that when eating yogurt, lactose intolerant people’s digestive tracts retained 60% less undigested lactose when eating yogurt than when consuming the same amount of milk.

According to the same study, yogurt also causes fewer symptoms, with only 20% of people reporting digestive distress after eating the yogurt, compared with 80% who struggled after drinking the milk.

It’s best to look for yogurts labeled “probiotic,” which means they contain live cultures of helpful bacteria. Yogurts that have been pasteurized, a process that kills the bacteria, may not be as well tolerated.

Additionally, full-fat and strained yogurts, like Greek and Greek-style yogurt, could be an even better choice for people with lactose intolerance.

This is because full-fat yogurts contain more fat and less lactose-laden whey than low-fat yogurts.

Greek and Greek-style yogurts are strained during processing. This removes even more of the whey, making them naturally much lower in lactose.

Summary

Lactose intolerant people often find yogurt easier to digest than milk. The best yogurt for people with lactose intolerance is a full-fat, probiotic yogurt that contains live bacterial cultures.

Choosing a protein powder can be tricky for those who are lactose intolerant. Protein powders are usually made from the proteins in milk whey, which is the lactose-containing liquid part of milk.

However, the amount of lactose found in whey protein powders can vary, depending on how the whey is processed.

There are three main types of whey protein powder:

  • Whey concentrate: This contains up to 85% protein and a small amount of lactose.
  • Whey isolate: This contains a higher concentration of protein and less lactose than whey protein concentrate.
  • Whey hydrolysate: This contains a similar amount of lactose as whey concentrate, but some of the proteins in this powder have already been partially broken down.

The best choice for lactose sensitive individuals is whey isolate, which contains the lowest levels of lactose.

Nevertheless, the lactose content can vary considerably between brands, and most people have to experiment to see which protein powder brand works best for them.

Summary:

Dairy protein powders have already had some lactose removed. However, some types, such as whey isolates, have less lactose than others and may be a better choice for people who are lactose intolerant.

Kefir is a fermented beverage that’s traditionally made by adding “kefir grains” to animal milk.

Like yogurt, kefir grains contain live cultures of bacteria that help break down and digest the lactose in milk.

This means kefir may be better tolerated by people with lactose intolerance, when consumed in moderate quantities.

In fact, an older 2003 study found that, compared with milk, fermented dairy products like yogurt or kefir could reduce symptoms of intolerance by 54–71%.

Summary

Kefir is a fermented milk beverage. Like yogurt, the bacteria in kefir break down lactose, making it more digestible.

Cream is made by skimming off the fatty liquid that rises to the top of milk. As with butter and Greek yogurts, isolating the fat content of milk removes a portion of the lactose-containing elements.

Different creams can have different amounts of fat, depending on the ratio of fat to milk in the product.

Heavy cream is a high fat product that contains around 37% fat. This is a higher percentage than that of other creams, like half and half and light cream.

It also contains almost no sugar, which means its lactose content is very low. In fact, a half ounce (15 ml) of heavy cream only contains around 0.5 grams.

Therefore, small amounts of heavy cream in your coffee or with your dessert shouldn’t cause you any problems.

Summary

Heavy cream is a high fat product that contains almost no lactose. Using small amounts of heavy cream should be tolerable for most people who are lactose intolerant.

Brands that make popular dairy products will often offer low lactose alternatives, created by mixing lactase directly into the product in order to break down the lactose before you’ve even taken a bite. Brands with entire lines of products that are lactose-free include Lactaid and Green Valley Creamery.

Plant-based dairy alternatives marketed to vegans are also great lactose-free options.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not necessary for people with lactose intolerance to avoid all dairy products.

In fact, some dairy products — such as the ones discussed in this article — are naturally low in lactose.

In moderate and controlled amounts, they’re usually well tolerated. Some people may find that some of the foods listed above are harder on their digestive systems than others.

Through trial and error, as well as moderation, you can create a list of low lactose foods that are best for you.