We all know that traditional cheese is made from milk, which is composed of fat, protein and lactose. Because of this, many people tend to assume that cheese contains lactose too. However, it is not the case.
In fact, milk sugar - also known as lactose - is nearly completely removed from the cheese curd during the cheesemaking process. To help us understand the cheesemaking process a little bit better, let’s take a look at the main steps below:
- Acidify milk (naturally or with starter cultures)
- Add rennet in order to separate liquids (whey) from solids (curd)
- Cut/stir the curd
- Drain off the whey
- Add some salt (to most varieties of cheese)
- Place the curds in forms
- Dry the wheels and mature them
So, what happens to the lactose in this process? The very first step of the cheesemaking process – the acidification of the milk – sees the majority of the lactose present in the milk converted into lactic acid. At the end of this step the majority of the lactose is gone and we are left with a yoghurt-like substance which will ultimately become cheese.
Next, when the rennet is added, the soured milk starts to curdle and separate from its liquid part – whey. Traces of lactose do get trapped in these protein-rich curds, but the exact amount will depend on how much or how little whey is drained off at this stage.
If a relatively small amount of whey is drained off (this happens in the production of soft cheeses), traces of lactose in the curd will be more significant. Conversely, if more whey is drained off (this happens in the production of firm and hard cheeses), traces of lactose will be negligible. It is also important to bear in mind that any traces of lactose left in the curd will get broken down as the cheese matures. Hence, the more mature and the firmer the cheese, the less lactose it contains.
It should also be highlighted that lactose is present in milk from cows, sheep, goats and buffalo, so the common misconception that goat’s milk is better for lactose-intolerant people is not necessarily true.
Soft cheeses - which are generally matured for less time and have less whey or lactose removed from them - may still contain traces of lactose. Depending on the consumer’s sensitivity to lactose, softer cheeses can still be enjoyed, but if the consumer is extremely intolerant to milk sugar, they are best avoided.
Examples of ‘safe’ cheeses for those with a lactose intolerance are extra mature Gruyère, Comté, Beaufort; Parmigiano Reggiano (two years upwards) and Vintage Gouda.
In short, the best way to avoid lactose is to opt for firm or hard mature cheeses, no matter which milk is used. And even more importantly, remember to savour cheeses slowly and mindfully, getting more pleasure out of every bite!
The Cheese Lady x