Matthew Rubiner: 'There's no lactose in cheese!'

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The lactose intolerant gaze forlornly at my brimming cheese case and sigh, "I wish I could eat cheese." "But Sir/Ma'am, I can grant your wish," I say, "There is no lactose in cheese!" I wait for the angel choir and tears of joy, but they never come. They're not buying it. I offer statistics, charts, testimonials, but they don't want to hear it. The look at me like I'm some country cheesemonger dispensing unlicensed medical advice, and head for the door. I shout after them, "Wait! It's probably just your inability to digest the larger fat globules of cows milk!!" But this only quickens their pace.

I get their skepticism: They are lactose intolerant, milk is full of lactose, and cheese is made from milk. I get it, transitively. But there is no lactose in cheese.* It's scientific fact.

Lactose is a sugar found in milk. It is present, in varying quantities, in the milk of all mammals, except, apparently, kangaroos (wait, are they even mammals?). It makes milk taste sweet, and along with fat, provides energy for baby mammals. It helps them absorb vitamins and minerals and satisfies their thirst.

Lactose is notoriously hard to digest, so babies come armed with lactase, an enzyme they produce in their small intestine that splits the lactose into simpler, more digestible sugars. Without lactase, the lactose would fall prey to gas-producing gut micro flora, with unpleasant consequences. But, and here's the catch, once the baby mammal is weaned off milk it shuts down lactase production, because you don't need lactase if you don't drink milk. So, to recap, lactose intolerance, from toddlerhood on, is a natural mammal condition, and any mammal with any sense stops drinking milk after infancy.

But not humans. We'll eat anything. Plus, milk is full of fat, protein, minerals and vitamins. Don't want to squander that. Also, milk tastes good. Ice cream tastes good. But without any lactase in your gut, the milk party's over (or just getting started, depending on your taste in comedy).

So, I hear you asking, how is it possible, if lactose intolerance is a baseline mammal condition as I assert above, that some of us modern humans are lactose tolerant and some aren't? The answer is in the discovery of lactic fermentation and the evolutionary trajectory it started. Bear with me. I'll be brief.

Before, say, 7,000 years ago, nobody was drinking milk after toddlerhood, unless, as a noted dairy scientist put it to me once, "they didn't mind the explosive diarrhea and crippling pain." Then somebody figured out that if you let milk spoil, until it gets all sour and lumpy, it becomes more digestible. And then they figured out that if you drain off all the brackish liquid and eat the lumpy bits — the milk concentrate — then the diarrhea is not so explosive and the pain not so crippling. Eat enough of this increasingly lactose-free stuff for a few millennia, and your guts get the memo and restart lactase production (especially if you're of Scandinavia, French or German extraction where cheese and fermented milk products really took hold. For the rest of you it's a crap shoot, as it were).

Here's what went down in that rotting bowl of Neolithic milk (or: Fermented Milk and Cheesemaking 101, Condensed and Wildly Oversimplified): Some lactobacilli and streptococci — lactose eating bacteria — got into the milk, as they do (you know them as the various "L." and "S." prefixed active cultures in your favorite yogurt, like L. Bulgaricus or S. Thermophilus) and converted — fermented — the lactose, or a lot of it anyway, into lactic acid. After a while, when the acidity reached a certain point, a biochemical reaction occurred that caused the proteins to clump together, along with the fat, vitamins, and the minerals — the curds. When the liquid — the whey — was drained off, most of the water-soluble lactose went with it, leaving a pile of relatively lactose-free curds. Press, cut, heat, or age these curds for a couple weeks and the lactose totally disappears.

There. Myth busted.

But wait, what if eating cheese still makes you sick? Now I'm no doctor, but most likely you have difficulty digesting cows milk fat and its big clumpy globules (I tried to tell you!). Switch to goat or sheep milk (smaller globules!) and you should be fine.

So, in sum, you may have 99 problems with cheese but lactose ain't one. Hey that's catchy.

*Well. A little. In really young cheeses (cottage, mozzarella, etc). But way less than the 250ml daily of milk that Google says it's OK to drink. I realize this diminishes the impact of my bold opening pronouncement, so I'm hiding it down here, where no one will read it.

Matthew Rubiner is a cheesemonger and the owner of Rubiner's Cheesemongers & Grocers and Rubi's Coffee & Sandwiches in Great Barrington. He was the inaugural champion of the U.S. Cheesemonger Invitational, and is a "Gard et Jure" of the Guilde Internationale des Fromagers.


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