Low lactose and lactose-free foods are intended for people to whom lactose causes stomach problems. Lactose occurs naturally only in milk. It is also found in food products manufactured using milk or milk products. In low-lactose milk product, lactose has been broken down into glucose and galactose which cause the sweetness of low-lactose products. Lactose-free products are products from which part of the lactose contained in milk is removed completely and the rest of the lactose is broken down enzymatically.
When people suffer from lactose intolerance, the enzyme that breaks down lactose is missing or present in too low levels in their small intestines. Symptoms of lactose intolerance include stomach rumbling and bloating, flatulence, stomach cramps and diarrhea. Tolerance to lactose varies; most lactose intolerant people can tolerate lactose in small quantities (5 – 10 g at a time) while very small quantities (1 – 2 g of lactose) will cause symptoms in other people. A glass of ordinary milk contains 10 g of lactose and a glass of low-lactose milk 2 g of lactose.
It should be emphasised that milk allergy and lactose intolerance are not the same thing. Milk allergy refers to the body reacting to the proteins contained in milk, while lactose intolerance is an inability to absorb lactose. More information about the differences between milk allergy and lactose intolerance is provided on our website. (in Finnish)
No common limit values have so far been defined at EU level for the lactose content of low-lactose and lactose-free food products. The following values have for quite some time been applied in Finland as Nordic limit values:
- lactose-free foods – lactose content less than 10 mg/100 g or 100 ml
- low lactose foods – lactose content less than 1 g/100 g or 100 ml
The limit values are based on Nordic report "Nordiske Seminar- og Arbejdsrapporter 1993:557" (Nordic Seminar and Working Reports). Finnish Food Authority advises compliance with these limit values until limit values are possibly stipulated at EU level.
As part of the preparation of regulations regarding lactose-free and low lactose food products, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has at the invitation of the Commission issued a scientific opinion on lactose thresholds in lactose intolerance and galactosemia.
- Dietary treatment of lactose intolerance – nutrition therapists in health care centres and hospital districts, or the attending physician.