Consumers battling lactose intolerance might need to find ways to become more tolerant of dairy to manage good health. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently gathered a panel of nutrition experts to address lactose intolerance and health. The group evaluated the most recent research on lactose intolerance, discussed strategies to manage the condition, and discovered the outcomes of diets that exclude dairy foods.

Lactose intolerance is the result of low amounts of the lactase enzymes used to comfortably digest dairy products and more specifically, lactose - the sugar found in milk. Many times when the condition is discovered, dairy products are almost completely eliminated in the diet. The panel of experts completed a thorough scientific review and drafted a consensus statement to address common misconceptions about lactose intolerance.

They agreed that completely eliminating dairy in the diet was a poor choice and could lead to greater health risks. Because of dairy's dense nutrient line-up, meeting nutrient needs would be difficult for lactose-intolerant individuals who eliminated dairy in their diet. In addition, strong research suggests that those with lactose intolerance can tolerate at least 12 grams of lactose without minor symptoms - that's about one cup of milk.

African Americans tend to have lower Vitamin D intakes. Part of that likely is due to the increased prevalence of lactose intolerance in the African American community. The National Medical Association is the nation's largest group of African American physicians. Dr. Wilma Wooten, president of its San Diego chapter presented research to the NIH panel on the ethnic prevalence of lactose intolerance. "Individuals with lactose intolerance should not avoid dairy products," Wooten said. "This message should be reinforced to prevent the missed opportunity provided by the nutrient-rich package of low and nonfat milk, hard cheese, and yogurt with live active cultures."

Another study quantified the degree of lactose intolerance in the United States and found an amount lower than previously thought. They concluded that as little as 12 percent of the U.S. population identifies themselves as lactose-intolerant. However, ethnically, this number varied. For European Americans, 7.7 percent reported being lactose-intolerant, 10.1 percent of Hispanic Americans, and 19.5 percent of African Americans report being lactose-intolerant.

Dietary guidelines for Americans encourage those with lactose intolerance to focus on consuming lower-lactose dairy options such as lactose-free milk, yogurt, and hard cheeses to ensure they receive the important nutrients found in dairy products. If you would like more information on the recent panel on lactose intolerance, visit the National Dairy Council's website.