Is it true that most Asian people are lactose intolerant?

Lactose is the natural sugar found in milk. Approximately 2/3 of the Asian population have trouble absorbing lactose.

Last updated 17/01/2024

Babies produce the lactase enzyme which allows them to absorb the natural lactose in their mother’s milk. People go on to retain the ability to digest lactose into adulthood — though to varying degrees.

In populations where milk consumption has always been high, such as in Europe, most adults continue to produce lactase for their whole lives and can digest milk quite happily with only around 5% of the population being lactose intolerant.

Symptoms of lactose intolerance typically include abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhoea and cramping, and the condition is most accurately diagnosed with a hydrogen breath test.

Lactose intolerance doesn't mean dairy free and there can often be significant differences in the amount of lactose that can be consumed before symptoms present among people diagnosed with lactose intolerance.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines say that up to 250ml of milk (about 12–15g of lactose) can be well tolerated, without symptoms, if it’s consumed with other foods or throughout the day. Most cheeses contain low or no lactose and yoghurt contains ‘good’ bacteria that help to digest lactose. Low-lactose and lactose-free milks and yoghurts are also available.

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