The lactose-free diet is a common eating pattern that eliminates or restricts lactose, a type of sugar in milk.

Although most people are aware that milk and dairy products typically contain lactose, there are many other hidden sources of this sugar in the food supply.

In fact, many baked goods, candies, cake mixes, and cold cuts contain lactose as well.

This article takes a closer look at which foods you should eat and avoid as part of a lactose-free diet.

Lactose is a type of simple sugar found naturally in milk and milk products. It’s typically broken down by lactase, an enzyme in the small intestine.

However, many people are unable to produce lactase, which results in an inability to digest the lactose in milk.

In fact, it’s estimated that approximately 65% of the world’s population is lactose intolerant, meaning that they’re unable to digest lactose (1).

For those with lactose intolerance, consuming products that contain lactose can trigger adverse side effects like stomach pain, bloating, and diarrhea (2).

Fortunately, following a lactose-free diet can minimize symptoms for those with this condition.

Some people may also adopt a lactose-free diet to decrease their consumption of milk products, which they may desire to do for personal, religious, or health reasons, as well as environmental or ethical concerns (3).

Others may choose to eliminate lactose as part of a dairy-free diet, which is recommended for those with an allergy to the proteins in milk, including casein or whey (4).

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Those with lactose intolerance may choose to adopt a lactose-free diet to alleviate symptoms. Some people may also choose to follow a lactose-free diet to decrease their consumption of dairy products.

Many foods can be enjoyed as part of a healthy, lactose-free diet, including:

  • Fruits: apples, oranges, berries, peaches, plums, grapes, pineapples, mangoes
  • Vegetables: onions, garlic, broccoli, kale, spinach, arugula, collard greens, zucchini, carrots
  • Meat: beef, lamb, pork, veal
  • Poultry: chicken, turkey, goose, duck
  • Seafood: tuna, mackerel, salmon, anchovies, lobster, sardines, clams
  • Eggs: egg yolks and egg whites
  • Soy foods: tofu, tempeh, natto, miso
  • Legumes: black beans, kidney beans, lentils, pinto beans, chickpeas
  • Whole grains: barley, buckwheat, quinoa, couscous, wheat, farro, oats
  • Nuts: almonds, walnuts, pistachios, cashews, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts
  • Seeds: chia seeds, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds
  • Milk alternatives: lactose-free milk, rice milk, almond milk, oat milk, coconut milk, cashew milk, hemp milk
  • Lactose-free yogurts: coconut yogurt, almond milk yogurt, soy yogurt, cashew yogurt
  • Healthy fats: avocados, olive oil, sesame oil, coconut oil
  • Herbs and spices: turmeric, oregano, rosemary, basil, dill, mint
  • Beverages: water, tea, brewed coffee, coconut water, juice

Keep in mind that lactose-free products made from milk should be avoided by those with a dairy allergy, as they may contain milk proteins like casein or whey.

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Many healthy foods can easily fit into a lactose-free diet, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.

Lactose is found primarily in milk products, including yogurt, cheese, and butter. However, it’s also found in a variety of other prepared foods.

Dairy products

Certain dairy products contain low amounts of lactose and can be tolerated by many with lactose intolerance.

For example, butter contains only trace amounts and is unlikely to cause symptoms for those with lactose intolerance unless very high amounts are consumed. Notably, clarified butter contains almost no lactose (5, 6).

Meanwhile, certain types of yogurt contain beneficial bacteria that can assist with the digestion of lactose (7).

Other dairy products that often contain low amounts of lactose include kefir, skyr, aged or hard cheeses, and heavy cream (5, 6, 8).

Although these foods may be well tolerated by those with mild lactose intolerance, people with a milk allergy or those avoiding lactose for other reasons may still want to eliminate these ingredients from their diet.

Here are some dairy products that you may want to avoid as part of a lactose-free diet:

  • milk — all types of cow’s milk, goat’s milk, and buffalo milk
  • cheese — especially soft cheeses, such as cream cheese, cottage cheese, mozzarella, and ricotta
  • butter
  • yogurt
  • ice cream, frozen yogurt, and dairy-based sherbet
  • buttermilk
  • sour cream
  • whipped cream

Prepared foods

In addition to being present in dairy products, lactose can be found in many other prepared food products.

Checking the label for added dairy may help identify whether a product contains lactose.

Here are a few foods that may contain lactose:

  • convenience meals
  • instant potato mixes
  • cream-based or cheesy sauces, soups, and gravies
  • bread, tortillas, crackers, and biscuits
  • baked goods and desserts
  • creamed vegetables
  • candies, including chocolates and confectioneries
  • waffle, pancake, muffin, and cake mixes
  • breakfast cereals
  • processed meats, including hot dogs, bacon, sausage, and cold cuts
  • instant coffee
  • salad dressings
  • flavored potato chips
summary

Lactose is commonly found in dairy products, including milk, cheese, and butter. It may also be present in many prepared foods, such as baked goods, cream-based sauces, and processed meats.

If you’re unsure whether a specific food contains lactose, checking the label can be very useful.

Look for added milk or dairy products, which may be listed as milk solids, whey, or milk sugar.

Other ingredients that indicate a product may contain lactose include:

  • butter
  • buttermilk
  • cheese
  • condensed milk
  • cream
  • curds
  • evaporated milk
  • goat’s milk
  • lactose
  • malted milk
  • milk
  • milk byproducts
  • milk casein
  • milk powder
  • milk sugar
  • powdered milk
  • sour cream
  • whey
  • whey protein concentrate

Keep in mind that, despite having a similar name, ingredients like lactate, lactic acid, and lactalbumin are unrelated to lactose.

summary

Checking the label for added milk or dairy products can help determine whether a product may contain lactose.

Lactose is a type of milk sugar found in a variety of foods, including dairy products and many processed or prepared foods like soups, sauces, and breakfast cereals.

Fortunately, many foods can be enjoyed as part of a lactose-free diet, including fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes, and proteins.

Additionally, checking the label of your favorite foods is a simple strategy to determine whether a product contains lactose.