If you’re lactose-intolerant you might think you’ve been cursed to a life without cheese, but not all cheeses contain high levels of that problematic sugar. To see which cheeses are still your friend (and which will give you trouble), just take a peek at the nutrition label.
Lower your lactose
Lactose is the sugar found in milk, so if it gives you tummy troubles, the fewer grams of sugar on the label, the better. Compare, for example, the 0.2 grams in cheddar cheese, versus the 6 grams in feta. Grocery chain Wegmans (via I Hate You Milk) says:
An easy way to check for lactose in cheese is to look at the Nutrition Facts under “Sugar” Since the sugar in cheese is lactose, you can easily see how much lactose the cheese contains. If the sugar is listed as zero, then the cheese contains no more than half a gram of lactose per ounce. Compare to 12 grams of lactose in an 8 ounce glass of milk.
Cheese with trace levels (less than 0.5 gram lactose) Natural, aged cheese (such as Cheddar, Parmesan and Swiss) can be digested by many people with lactose intolerance. During the cheese making process, most of the lactose is drained off with the whey (a liquid portion). The small amount that remains in the curd is changed to lactic acid during ripening (aging) of cheese. Only trace amounts of lactose remain.
Cheese with low levels (less than 5 grams lactose) Fresh unripened cheese (such as mozzarella, cream cheese and ricotta) are not aged. Only part of the lactose that remains in the curd has a chance to convert to lactic acid. Cottage Cheese, also a fresh unripened cheese, generally has additional milk or cream mixed with the curd. Therefore, fresh cheeses contain more lactose than aged cheeses.
Processed cheese foods and cheese spreads are made by melting natural cheese to stop the aging process and then adding other ingredients, including whey or milk. Cheese foods and cheese spreads contain lactose.
Look for aged rather than younger cheeses, and sugar content under 5 grams per serving. Dairy guru Steve Carper also suggests another rule of thumb: The higher the fat content, the lower the lactose level (usually). He also has a big list of dairy products’ lactose percentages for your reference, while IBS Free has another (PDF) list with the lactose amounts in grams.
Avoid dairy altogether
If you want to avoid lactose altogether, try avoiding dairy entirely. Thanks to advances in science and cashews, there are a lot of very good fake cheeses available. Kite Hill and Miyoko’s both make excellent soft, spreadable, dairy-free dupes that taste great in recipes and on their own. If you want something that will look at home on a cheese board, try the vegan wheels from Miyoko’s. If you want something for a lasagna, reach for Kite Hill’s ricotta dupe. (Both companies make great cream cheese subs.) For a dairy-free grilled cheese, try the Vegan Chao Slices from Field Roast, which melt and stretch on par with Kraft singles. American singles only contain one gram of lactose per slice—technically on the “low” end of the spectrum—but it may be worth skipping them if you’re particularly sensitive (or like more than one slice on your grilled cheese).
This story was originally published in April 2014 and has been updated on Nov. 5, 2020. Changes from the original include the addition of dairy-free options and edits to align the content with current Lifehacker style guidelines.