9 Foods Low in Lactose

Lactose is a type of sugar found in dairy products, like milk. Cow’s milk is the most common type of milk used to make dairy products. But the milk from all mammals contains lactose, including goat, sheep, and buffalo milk. Even human breast milk contains about 7% lactose. 

For all the foods we eat, the body has specific digestive enzymes to help break down the nutrients into smaller pieces to be absorbed and metabolized. The digestive enzyme called lactase is responsible for breaking down lactose.

People who do not have enough lactase become lactose intolerant. The lactose in dairy passes through them without being digested.

Once the lactose reaches the large intestine, the friendly bacteria that make up the gut microbiome ferment the sugar to use as fuel. This fermentation results in gas, bloating, and the other symptoms of lactose intolerance.

Most people with lactose intolerance have some lactase and can tolerate some dairy without developing symptoms. The threshold at which symptoms begin varies, but most people can handle at least 12 grams of lactose. That amount of lactose is found in an 8-ounce glass of milk.  

This article covers nine foods that are low in lactose and may be tolerated by someone with lactose intolerance. 

Dairy Intolerant person. Woman with stomach pain holding a glass of milk.

Albina Gavrilovic / Getty Images

Butter

Butter is created by churning milk to separate the fat from the liquid components. Most of the sugar is removed during this process, and primarily the fat from milk remains.

Butter is a very high-fat product, with about 80% being fat and the rest being liquids remaining from the milk.

There are about 0.58 grams of lactose in a whole stick of butter. So, if you’re spreading butter on a piece of toast or in cooking, it’s adding very little lactose to the meal.

Hard Cheese

Hard cheeses like cheddar, Parmesan, pecorino, and Swiss are low in lactose. These cheeses are made by heating milk and adding an enzyme called rennin. Like butter, the process separates the fat from some of the liquid milk and results in less sugar remaining in the cheese.

One slice (17 grams) of cheddar cheese only contains about 0.027 grams of lactose.

Yogurt

Almost all people with lactose intolerance can tolerate fermented dairy products, like yogurt. Yogurt is made by heating milk and adding bacteria. The bacteria ferment some of the sugar in milk and thicken it to create the consistency of yogurt.

Some types of yogurt, like Greek yogurt, go through further processes to remove more of the milk liquid, leaving them higher in protein and fat.

In one container (150 grams) of Greek yogurt, there are about 3.69 grams of lactose. In addition, yogurt with live bacteria is a great source of probiotics (beneficial live bacteria), which add to the health of your gut microbiome (the healthy balance of microbes in your digestive tract). 

Sherbert

If you’re craving a frozen dessert, sherbet is one of the best treats for someone with lactose intolerance. Sherbet is made from a mixture of fruit puree, sugar, and a small amount of milk. (Sorbet is similar to sherbet but contains no dairy.)

Usually, ice cream is made with about 50% milk or cream, while sherbet usually contains a maximum of 2%.

Sherbet typically contains about 4 to 6 grams of lactose in 1 cup. 

Heavy Cream

Heavy cream is made by taking out the fatty liquid that rises to the top of separated milk. Similar to butter, heavy cream is a very high-fat product.

One tablespoon (15 grams) of heavy cream contains about 0.43 grams of lactose. So it’s safe for most people to use some heavy cream in their diet, like in a cup of coffee.

Kefir

Similar to yogurt, kefir may be better tolerated by people with lactose intolerance because it’s a fermented milk product. Research suggests that regularly consuming kefir may improve digestion and tolerance to dairy products. 

Kefir is a fermented milk product produced using grains. The end result provides a mixture with bacteria and yeast that have numerous health benefits.

Kefir contains a moderate amount of lactose, about 9 grams of lactose in 1 cup (243 grams). Despite the slightly higher amount of lactose than other foods in this list, it’s well tolerated by most people with lactose intolerance.

Sour Cream

Sour cream is commonly used as a topping, such as on tacos, and as an ingredient in recipes. It’s made by adding bacteria to a light cream to thicken and ferment the milk.

One tablespoon of sour cream provides about 0.4 grams of lactose. 

Lactose-Free Dairy Products

Lactose-free dairy products are milk products that have lactase added during processing. Manufacturers add lactase to break down the lactose in the product. So if you have lactose intolerance, it’s safe to consume these products since the sugar is already broken down. 

There are several lactose-free dairy products like milk, sour cream, and yogurt. The end result is safe to consume and tastes nearly the same as the traditional version. 

Cottage Cheese

Cottage cheese is made by heating milk and adding enzymes to create solid curds. During this process, the amount of lactose is reduced. 

Cottage cheese contains a moderate amount of lactose with about 9 grams in 1 cup. So, cottage cheese is higher in lactose, but some people with lactose intolerance may still tolerate it. 

Low-Lactose Diet Tips

When following a low-lactose diet, try to space out your dairy foods. The threshold for how much lactose causes symptoms can vary from person to person. And some people may notice dairy is safe to have one day, but eating it multiple days in a row causes a problem. 

It can take time to figure out what works best for you. But you may not have to completely cut out dairy foods unless you want to. 

Aim for eating plenty of non-lactose-containing foods like fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood, eggs, beans, nuts, and tofu. Then add in small amounts of low-lactose dairy foods as desired. 

Some medications can be taken with dairy products to provide more lactase to digest the dairy. Talk with your healthcare provider to learn if lactase enzyme supplements are a good fit for you. 

Summary

Lactose is the sugar found in milk. Some people produce too little of the enzyme lactase to digest this sugar, causing lactose intolerance. People with lactose intolerance typically can tolerate small amounts of lactose.

Low-lactose dairy products include butter, hard cheese, yogurt, kefir, sherbet, and sour cream. In addition, some lactose-free dairy products have the enzyme lactase added during processing to break down the lactose and can be safe for people with lactose intolerance.

A Word From Verywell

You don’t need to completely avoid dairy if you have lactose intolerance. Most people are able to tolerate some low-lactose foods or minimal amounts of higher lactose foods.

If you find you still have symptoms after cutting back on foods containing lactose, talk to your healthcare provider. Your provider may recommend solutions and assess whether the symptoms could be related to a different problem.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is butter considered dairy?

    Yes, butter is considered a dairy product and is made by churning milk. It contains a very small amount of lactose and is usually well tolerated by people with lactose intolerance.

  • Does yogurt have lactose?

    Yogurts do contain lactose. Although, it’s usually a smaller amount and is often well tolerated by people with lactose intolerance since the bacteria used to make yogurt ferment some of the lactose.

  • How much lactose can lactose intolerant people consume?

    Most people with a lactose intolerance are able to consume at least 12 grams of lactose without developing symptoms. The exact amount people can tolerate varies and may depend on how frequently dairy is consumed.

  • How long do lactose intolerance symptoms last?

    The severity of symptoms and how long they last depend on how much dairy is consumed. The symptoms last until all of the lactose passes through your system, which could be up to 72 hours.

  • How can you get diagnosed as lactose intolerant?

    Lactose intolerance is usually diagnosed with a hydrogen breath test. This test measures the amount of hydrogen gas in your breath before and after drinking lactose. High hydrogen levels after drinking lactose indicate it’s not being properly digested and is instead being fermented by the bacteria in your intestines.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Ashley Braun, MPH, RD
Ashley Braun, MPH, RD, is a registered dietitian and public health professional with over 5 years of experience educating people on health related topics using evidence-based information. Her experience includes educating on a wide range of conditions including diabetes, heart disease, HIV, neurological conditions, and more.