I would buy your cheese if I was certain I could eat it...
January 17, 2010 11:20 PM   Subscribe

Most lactose intolerant people can consume small amounts of lactose without becoming ill. So why do the nutritional labels on food and drink not list the amount of lactose the product contains?

After years of lactose intolerance, I've learnt out that I can tolerate hard cheese, but not haloumi, yoghurt but not ice-cream, most chocolate but never milk caramels. This experimentation has prevented me from unnecessarily limiting my diet, but the process has sometimes been unpleasant.

So I got to thinking - why isn't the information on the label? Diabetics can monitor their sugar intake, and people with heart problems can limit sodium and saturated fat, all by reading the nutritional labels on what they eat. If lactose were listed, I'd be able to work out exactly how much lactose I can digest, and choose foods which were within my limit.

So why is it never listed? Is lactose difficult to test for? Are there commercial reasons why companies wouldn't want it on their labels? Has anyone been advocating for labelling? Have any food or drink producers done so voluntarily?
posted by embrangled to Food & Drink (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It's probably because lactose intolerance is never remotely life-threatening. Sure, you might get uncomfortable or stomach-sick, but nothing like what might happen to a diabetic or an individual with heart troubles if they run afoul of unknown ingredients.
posted by clockzero at 11:37 PM on January 17, 2010

Just theorizing here, but let's say you (or any lactose intolerant person) can eat cheddar cheese with 1-2 grams of lactose per serving, but you get sick on cream cheese which also has 1-2 grams per serving. So maybe the measurement wouldn't really be that useful. (I got my measurements here.)
posted by IndigoRain at 12:01 AM on January 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

It probably has more to do with the live cultures than the lactose; i.e. yogurt and certain cheeses have more live bacteria than, say, ice cream; the bacteria help you digest the lactose. Not sure if this is a scientific fact, but that's what I've always heard.
posted by melissasaurus at 4:37 AM on January 18, 2010

I don't know of any food allergen that is listed in amounts on labels (along with dairy, wheat/gluten, soy, corn and peanuts are the other big ones). I think the above responses are on the right track - because reactions to these foods are so individual and can vary based on how the food is processed/prepared, manufacturers would have to supply a lot of information in order for you to make a really informed decision, and that might verge too close to revealing recipes and trade secrets.

That's just my speculation though. I really just came here to add that this is a great comprehensive list of lactose percentages for self-tracking purposes.
posted by Fifi Firefox at 4:46 AM on January 18, 2010

Best answer: Speaking from a regulatory standpoint, getting manufacturers to add information to labels is a huge pain in the ass. It took years before the current Nutritional Information label could be implemented, and every single item on there was fought over by interest groups. Ingredient producers want their item featured or hidden depending on how good/bad it is perceived to be, consumer protection groups want full disclosure of everything down to the last atom. Manufacturers themselves don't want a label at all, because it represents extra effort and expense on their part, but barring that, they want to have to gather as little information as possible.

There are certain items believed to be important enough to list at all, and a smaller subset of those items are believed to be important enough to list in detail. Sugar, sodium, fat, vitamins, all of these are recongized as being nutritionally significant for the entire population, so they get listed. Certain people need to consume less than others of these, but including the amounts was done more because everyone needs to know than out of an interest in protecting a certain subset of people.

The recent spate of allergen awareness has led to the inclusion of nut ingredients, but that's still voluntary if I remember correctly. Manufacturers include it out of a fear of products liability lawsuits, because adding a line saying there may be trace amounts of something doesn't take any effort on their part. Try to get them to quantify that and 1) you'd get resistance, because that'd be expensive, and 2) you'd still need the trace warning, because it's that dangerous.

Lactose, as mentioned above, is not that dangerous, nor is it a major nutrient that the entire population should be tracking. So though you may occasionally find it announced as being present, you aren't going to find a warning about it. It isn't going to kill anyone, or even seriously inconvenience anyone to be honest, and trace amounts won't even do that.
posted by valkyryn at 6:09 AM on January 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

In non-sweetened foods like milk and cheese, probably all the sugar is lactose, so you could go by that measurement. For foods like chocolate with added non-lactose sugar, I can't help you.
posted by callmejay at 9:17 AM on January 18, 2010

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