Nov. 30 2010 06:35 AM

While dairy operations become more efficient and populations grow, the objective is to see consumption of dairy products increase, which ensures a strong long-term demand for our nutrient-rich products. While we often hear about those that are lactose-intolerant and claim they cannot consume any dairy products, there is a chance to add dairy to their balanced diets. There is a great misunderstanding between lactose intolerance and lactose maldigestion. Lactose maldigestion is a decline (not a total absence) in the digestinal activity of lactase, the enzyme needed to digest milk sugar. When the body has consumed more lactose than the body has the ability to digest and absorb, the result is abdominal pain, bloating, flatulence, and diarrhea, known as lactose intolerance. A small portion of dairy to a lactose maldigestive person will not cause problems; however, overdosing on dairy can make a person feel the effects. Diagnosing oneself with lactose intolerance is not recommended and can lead to a diet that is short on the valuable nutrients in dairy products. Also, self-diagnosing may result in the true cause of a condition being overlooked. In a study of adolescent girls who self-diagnosed their lactose intolerance and, therefore, restricted their dairy product consumption had lower spinal mineral content, and this lower bone mass can contribute later in life to osteoporosis. The eating behaviors developed at a young age can have adverse effects on long-term health. It is estimated that 25 percent of the U.S. adult population and 75 percent of the world's population are lactose maldigesters. However, the true numbers of those that are lactose maldigesters and lactose intolerant is still debated. Consuming dairy products has helped to reduce the risk of several major diet-related chronic diseases such as hypertension, kidney stones, and colon cancer. Dairy products can also help maintain a healthy weight and avoid osteoporosis. For those who have difficulties consuming dairy products due to the lactose, there are some dairy products that are low in lactose and, therefore, when consumed in small amounts can allow dairy enjoyment. To improve tolerance, yogurt, Cheddar, Parmesan, Colby, and Swiss cheeses, kefir (fermented milk), and lactose-free milk can be consumed. Repeated exposure to small portions (less than ½ cup of milk) to slightly larger portions can help the colon adapt to the lactose being consumed. (Rice and soy beverages, which contain no lactose, do not contain the nutrient content of cow's milk.) Health care professionals play an important role in correctly diagnosing the condition and can recommend dairy foods in the diet for those sensitive to lactose. In very rare cases babies are born with very low or no lactase in their intestines. The majority of those with lactase deficiencies are temporary (which can also be from cancer radiation, medications, or illnesses). The range of symptoms vary with each person. Consuming dairy products with meals or with solid foods can slow the time it takes the undigested lactose to reach the colon, and, therefore, limit the effects. In the future, we (yes, we!) need to increase consumption by reaching new people as dairy consumers. Individuals should avoid self-diagnosis and become educated on lactose maldigestion and intolerance. Do you know someone who does not consume dairy products because of the lactose? Maybe someone in your church, the parent of your child's classmate, the lady behind you at the grocery store chatting about her soy beverage. . . Are their diets medically driven or simply a personal preference? We all have choices, but it is important to have the facts before making important health decisions. And, if they discover they are simply unable to handle large amounts of dairy with lactose, they can begin consuming dairy in small portions. And where there was previously no consumer, we now have one more. For more information on this topic, click to the National Dairy Council's page on Lactose Intolerance. The page contains several resource materials and facts sheets.