Shopping tips for lactose-intolerant people

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PantherMedia / Edwin Wodicka

When trying to avoid lactose, it is helpful to read the ingredients listed on food labels. These lists tell you whether the product has lactose in it.

All packaged foods have a label on them with information such as

  • the "best before" date,
  • all the ingredients (including ones that commonly trigger allergies or food intolerances), and
  • the nutritional content and calories.

Labeling for packaged food

Food labeling regulations state which information has to be included on food packaging. For people who are lactose-intolerant, the list of ingredients is most important. It contains the following information:

  • A list of all the ingredients according to their weight in the food product, starting with the ingredient that weighs the most and ending with the ingredient that weighs the least.
  • A list of all additives, such as emulsifiers, preservatives, coloring and flavoring agents.
  • Any allergens in the product: There are particularly strict regulations about the labeling of the main ingredients that can cause allergies or sensitive reactions. Currently, 14 substances and products must be labeled as potential allergens. Besides milk, these include things like soy, wheat, eggs, peanuts, almonds and walnuts. Such ingredients have to be specifically highlighted by using different writing (such as bold type) or a different background color.
  • Whether the product has milk or lactose in it (though the exact amount doesn't have to be specified).

How can you tell whether a product contains lactose?

If a product contains lactose, one of the following will be listed as an ingredient:

  • Milk sugar
  • Lactose
  • Lactose monohydrate

If you want to try a new product, it's best to look out for these ingredients.

It's also worthwhile taking another look at the list of ingredients if you develop typical intolerance symptoms after eating or drinking a product that hasn't caused problems before. Sometimes, manufacturers of convenience foods change the recipe.

Which products and ingredients aren't a problem?

There are plant-based dairy alternatives that don't contain any lactose. They are made from things like:

  • Almonds
  • Soy
  • Rice
  • Oats

The following ingredients don't contain any lactose either, even though it might sound like they do:

  • Lactate (lactic acid)
  • Lactilol – a sugar substitute
  • Milk protein
  • Lactic acid / fermented lactic acid (for example, in sauerkraut)

How much lactose is in different foods?

This table can help you get a rough idea of how much lactose is in different foods. You can also calculate how much lactose you are getting every day:

Butter, margarine and other fats

Table: Lactose in butter, margarine and other fats
Food product Serving size Lactose in grams per serving
Butter 20 g 0.1
Lard Any amount 0
Margarine Any amount 0
Vegetable fats and oils, including coconut oil Any amount 0

Cheese

Table: Lactose in different types of cheese
Food product Serving size Lactose in grams per serving
Mozzarella 20% fat in dry matter 100 g 3.3
Mascarpone 30 g 1
Cottage cheese 30 g 1
Cream cheese 30 g 0.9
Parmesan cheese 30 g 0
Most hard cheeses and sliced cheeses such as Alpine cheese, Emmentaler, Gouda, Edam or Tilsit 30 g 0

Milky coffee, cream and crème fraîche

Table: Lactose in milky coffee, cream and crème fraîche
Food product Serving size Lactose in grams per serving
Latte macchiato 125 ml 5.4
Cappuccino 125 ml 2.9
Skimmed milk powder 10 g 5.1
Whole milk powder 10 g 3.5
A dash of milk 30 ml 1.4
Coffee creamer (7.5% fat) 15 g 0.8
Sour cream (10% fat) 25 g 0.9
Crème fraîche (30% fat) 25 g 0.6
Cream 15 g 0.5

Yogurt, quark (curd) cheese, buttermilk

Table: Lactose in yogurt, quark (curd) cheese, and buttermilk
Food product Serving size Lactose in grams per serving
Whey 150 ml 7.1
Buttermilk 150 ml 6
Soured milk 150 g 6
Kefir 150 g 5.4
Yogurt 150 g 4.8
Quark (curd) cheese 30 g 1
The lactose content changes when fruits are added. The fat content is also important: A high amount of fat means a lower amount of lactose.

Sweet foods: Chocolate, ice cream and cake

Table: Lactose in chocolate, ice cream and cake
Food product Serving size Lactose in grams per serving
Milk chocolate 20 g 1.3
Ice cream 75 g 4.7
Fruit sorbet 75 g 1.3
Yeast-based cake with crumbles 310 g 3.1
Croissant 70 g 1
Pound cake 70 g 0.3

Dairy milk and alternatives

Table: Lactose in dairy milk and alternatives
Food product Serving size Lactose in grams per serving
Cow's milk 3.5% fat 150 ml 7
Sheep's milk 150 ml 6.6
Goat's milk 150 ml 6.3
Soy or oat milk Any amount 0

What do "lactose-reduced" and "lactose-free" actually mean?

Some manufacturers describe their food products as "lactose-reduced" and "lactose-free." The usage of these terms is currently not regulated by law. A product containing less than 0.1 g of lactose per 100 g may be called "lactose-free." Looking for the words "lactose-free" can save you the trouble of first checking the list of ingredients.

But because these terms aren't legally protected, products that don't contain any lactose naturally may be labeled as lactose-free for promotional purposes. There may be other, identical products without this label that are less expensive.

What should I keep in mind when buying foods without packaging?

Examples of unpackaged foods include things like cake from a bakery, sliced meat from a deli, or a restaurant meal. In Europe, the EU Food Information Regulation specifies that companies that sell unpackaged food must provide information on the allergen content. The information may be written in the menu or on a separate information sheet, for example. It can also be provided verbally or in electronic form, for instance on the business's website.

American Heart Association (AHA). Understanding Food Nutrition Labels. 2018.

Bundesministerium für Ernährung und Landwirtschaft (BMEL). Allgemeine Kennzeichnungsvorschriften: Allergenkennzeichnung ist Pflicht. 2021.

Bundeszentrum für Ernährung (BZfE). Laktoseintoleranz. 2020.

Bundeszentrum für Ernährung (BZfE). Lebensmittel: Allergenkennzeichnung. 2020.

IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. informedhealth.org can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

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Please note that we do not provide individual advice on matters of health. You can read about where to find help and support in Germany in our information “How can I find self-help groups and information centers?

Updated on January 25, 2022
Next planned update: 2025

Publisher:

Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

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