Foods High in Lactose

Medically Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on November 15, 2022
3 min read

Lactose is a sugar found primarily in milk and other dairy products. At an early age, bodies are able to break down and digest lactose from breastmilk using an enzyme called lactase. However, some people lose the ability to digest lactose over time. 

Around 75% of the world’s population has some form of lactose intolerance. Some can digest low-lactose diets, while others experience digestive symptoms after eating any amount of dairy. These symptoms can lead to diarrhea, stomach pain, and more.

For those with no sensitivity to lactose, dairy is a highly nutritious source of protein, calcium, and other vitamins like A and D. Including dairy in your diet can support your bone health and reduce the risk of obesity.

However, those with lactose intolerance —  whether mild or severe — should consider a low lactose or lactose-free diet to reduce symptoms. 

Lactose intolerance is caused by a decrease in lactase production, which makes it difficult for the lactose to become properly absorbed. Difficulty digesting lactose affects different populations in varying ways.

Studies estimate that it affects 5-17 %of Europeans, 44 % of Americans, and 60-80 % of Africans and Asians.  

For those sensitive to lactose, dairy products can cause severe digestive problems, including: 

  • Bloating
  • Nausea 
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Gas
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation

The severity of the symptoms depends on the level of lactose intolerance, as well as how much dairy was consumed.

Even for those with no sensitivity to dairy, cutting down on dairy can offer certain health benefits."

It can also increase the risk of developing inflammatory bowel disease, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Most dairy products contain lactose, but some contain more than others. The following foods contain the highest levels of lactose. However, keep in mind that other products may also contain these foods as ingredients and should also be avoided if you are lactose intolerant.   

1. Milk

Milk contains the most lactose out of all the dairy products. Whole milk contains about 13 grams of lactose per 1-cup serving, while skim milk can contain between 12 and 13 grams. Milk is also an ingredient in many other foods like margarine, shortening, baked goods, salad dressing, creamers, and more.  

2. Cheese

Cheese also contains a high amount of lactose. Hard cheeses such as parmesan, Swiss, and cheddar may be easier to digest because most of the lactose is eliminated while the cheese is being made. 

3. Cream

Products made from cream — like ice cream, cream cheese, custard, or butter — should be avoided due to the high levels of lactose.

4. Yogurt

In addition to some kinds of cheeses, some people with lactose intolerance may be able to eat yogurt in moderation, as the lactose has been partly broken down. 

5. Milk Chocolate

While milk chocolate contains less lactose than milk or cream, it still contains dairy in high amounts. Always check the label and eat in moderation.

Lactose intolerance can make consuming dairy difficult. However, lactase enzyme tablets are available to help break down lactose, allowing people to eat more dairy products. 

In addition to these over-the-counter enzyme tablets, you can also try a low-lactose or completely lactose-free diet. Here are some alternatives that may be easier to digest: 

Foods Low in Lactose 

The following foods and drinks are considered low lactose, which means they still contain lactose, but in smaller amounts. Different people may react differently to these foods, so it’s important to eat in moderation until you know how your body will react. 

Lactose-Free Foods

These lactose-free alternatives can allow you to consume typical dairy products — like milk, cheese, and ice cream—without the side effects.