By: Denise Tam, Certified Holistic Nutritionist
Dairy foods like cheese and milk can have their place in our daily diet, providing protein, fats and some vitamins and minerals. However for the majority of Hong Kong’s population, digesting the lactose, the main carbohydrate found in dairy is an issue due to a missing enzyme called lactase. With the rise in western culture and food in our Asian society, the increase in dairy consumption has now led to a rise in lactose intolerance.
What is Lactose Intolerance?
Lactase is an enzyme that our body produces that helps break down milk sugars or lactose. Many of us in Asia produce little or no lactase enzyme which creates problems in the digestive process. As undigested lactose moves through the digestive tract, this can cause abdominal pain, bloating, gas and diarrhea which are common symptoms of lactose intolerance.
Lactose Intolerance Causes in Asia
As babies, we produce this lactase enzyme to break down and digest our mothers milk- regardless of race. After being weaned our lactase production decreases. It wasn’t until the development of the agricultural and dairy industry when Europe introduced cow’s milk and other mammal’s milk into the diet to increase calcium consumption for healthy bones that lactase persistence developed.
In South East Asia, where we are closer to the equator means we have access to more sunshine throughout the year, producing Vitamin D, an essential factor in bone health. But this also means that we generally produce less lactase enzymes. In fact, as high as 90% of South East Asians are missing this enzyme.
Do we need dairy for calcium? Read more on the Deal on Dairy
Although I’m personally not intolerant to dairy, having grown up in Canada with a lot of dairy, it’s not something I have in my diet often. This is more for health reasons. I occasionally have cheese, opting for goats cheese or yogurt when I can as it is easier to digest.
How to manage lactose intolerance?
As many comfort foods like chocolate and cheese contain dairy, those who have a milk allergy or intolerant to dairy, life can be a bit miserable without these ‘enjoyments’ in life. But just because you are intolerant doesn’t mean you need to completely deprive yourself, if you don’t have severe allergies or if the intolerance is at a manageable level.
You can choose foods with lower lactose levels like :
- Gruyere, feta, brie cheese
- Goats or sheep yogurt
- Sorbets instead of ice cream
You can also choose to include a digestive enzyme that includes a higher level of lactase enzymes. You’ll always find me with Udo’s Choice Digestive Enzyme after having pizza - one of the worst food combinations, but oh so delicious, especially when done right!
Does lacking the lactase enzyme affect my health?
In short, no. Many people live normally without this lactase enzyme. It’s just about arranging your diet so you minimize the intake of dairy products. However, some develop a sudden onset of more serious symptoms relating to lactose intolerance. This can be a sign that your gut lining may be compromised, in which case it becomes much more than just an enzyme deficiency but a gut permeability issue which can lead to a host of other problems if left untreated. This is when I would stop dairy all together and deal with the gut issue.
Is a dairy free diet harmful to health?
If anything, dairy can do more harm than good and certainly isn’t the only source of calcium or vitamin D in our diet. I’ve stopped drinking milk for years now and I don’t take a calcium supplement but I load up on green vegetables and superpowders along with supplementing with D to ensure my bone density is healthy. To understand more about bone health, check out this article on bone health and osteoporosis which affects 25% of Hong Kong women.
For those who are adopting a dairy free lifestyle whether it’s because of an enzyme deficiency, health reasons, or on a vegan diet, there are still a lot of dairy free food options that taste just like the real thing. Not to mention, they’re likely healthier and better for the planet.
Here are my top 3 dairy free staples:
- Dairy free chocolate by Pana Chocolate. I’m still amazed at how smooth and truffle like this chocolate is without any of the dairy, cream or emulsifiers! My current favourite is their white chocolate macadamia - the only white chocolate I have found that isn’t pure sugar!
- Organic Oat milk by Minor Figures. I keep at least two cartons of this at home simply because its neutral taste goes with everything! Coffee, tea, in soups, smoothies and even in baking.
- Organic Coconut milk powder by Organic Traditions. Most coconut milk powders are mainly maltodextrin but I recently discovered Organic Traditions coconut milk powder which is predominantly coconut milk powder with some tapioca and guar gum to make it easily dissolvable. Together with mct or coconut oil you can make super creamy dairy free recipes like yogurt, ice creams, soups and puddings. It’s so easy and most of all easy to store unlike cans of coconut milk which may have BPA lining in them and need to be used up after opening.
I discovered the convenience of coconut milk powder when I was travelling a lot more than I am now in 2020-21 =(. Typically a quarter of my suitcase is filled with all of my supplements, powders and ‘extras’ to keep me healthy while on the road. I clearly couldn’t bring my oat milk along but to my delight came across this coconut milk powder and it’s been in my cupboard since.
Check out this Instant Goji Berry Ginger Oatmeal recipe that you can take with you on the go and even make it up within seconds at the office without lugging around your milk.
- 1 cup of oat meal or 5 grain cereal
4 tbsp coconut milk powder
- 1 tbsp goji berries
- 4 drops of ginger drops
- Nuts or seeds of choice (pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts etc)
- Hot water enough for desired consistency
- Put everything into a cup or bowl.
- Pour hot water over top and stir well until coconut milk powder is dissolved. You can add chia seeds to make it thicker or if you’re looking for more fiber.