Zero to low lactose in most cheeses

A block of Emmental cheese with lots of holes but no lactose

Hard cheese does not contain lactose, so it is not necessary to pay a premium for zero lactose cheese. This blog outlines what lactose intolerance is and how much lactose dairy products contain.

Lactose intolerance and milk allergies are commonly used terms. Sometimes there are used interchangeably – though they are different. First, let’s determine what’s a milk allergy and what’s lactose intolerant. A milk allergy is when your body has an immune response to a protein in a dairy product. Whereas lactose intolerance (also known as hypolactasia) is when the body has difficulty in digesting the lactose sugar in the milk which may result in bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, and nausea.

From here on we are talking about lactose intolerance – the milk sugar not the milk protein. Lactose is a carbohydrate (monosaccharide or simple sugar) found in mammal’s milk (both cow and human). Human infants are born lactose tolerant so they can digest their mother’s milk. Lactase is the enzyme which aids digestion on lactose. The gene which produces lactase should turn off once the infant is weaned. However, in the evolution of some humans this gene mutated, and the production of lactase continued. This was favourable with the onset of farming and subsequent consumption of cow’s milk [1].

In an older study, DNA testing determined about 8% of adults in Christchurch were lactose intolerant [1]. Higher levels of lactose intolerance were seen in Southeast Asians and approximately one third of Māori or Polynesian ethnicities in this study.

It is a misconception that all dairy products contain lactose. While cheese is made from milk (which contains lactose), the added cultures used in cheese making digest the lactose in the milk resulting in many cheeses being lactose free or with low levels of lactose. The table is a summary of dairy products and the quantity of lactose per 100 g. This data is based on New Zealand foods [2].

Dairy product (number of foods tested)Lactose g/100g, mean (minimum, maximum)
Cheddar (19)0.0 (0.0, 0.0)
Blue Cheese (3)0.0 (0.0 0.1)
Parmesan Cheese (2)0.1 (0.0, 0.1)
Brie, Camembert (2)0.1 (0.0, 0.1)
Swiss Cheese (1)0.1 (0.1, 0.1)
Mozzarella (1)0.1 (0.1, 0.1)
Butter (7)0.4 (0.3, 0.6)
Feta (3)1.1 (0.9, 1.3)
Haloumi (1)1.5 (1.5, 1.5)
Processed Cheese (2)2.1 (0.6, 3.6)
Cottage Cheese (2)2.2 (2.0, 2.4)
Crème Fraiche (2)2.9 (2.4, 3.3)
Yoghurt (21)3.0 (1.7, 4.3)
Fromage frais (5)3.1 (1.7, 4.4)
Ricotta (1)3.3 (3.3, 3.3)
Sour cream (2)3.4 (2.8, 3.9)
Cream (4)3.5 (2.8, 4.7)
Flavoured Milk (9)3.8 (3.0, 4.6)
Custard (2)4.2 (4.0, 4.4)
Spread (1)4.2 (4.2, 4.2)
Ice Cream (19)4.5 (2.9, 6.6)
Milk, cow (37)4.7 (3.8, 5.3)
Milk, sheep (1)4.8 (4.8, 4.8)
Dairy food (1)5.5 (5.5, 5.5)
Dessert (1)6.1 (6.1, 6.1)
Cream Cheese (4)6.1 (0.0, 14.1)
Milk shake (5)6.2 (3.7, 9)
Milk, human (2)6.8 (6.6, 6.9)
Milk, evaporated and/or UHT (3)7.8 (4.5, 9.5)
Condensed Milk (2)11.8 (10.8, 12.7)
Milk, goat (2)19.1 (4.2, 34.1)
Protein powder (2)39.2 (4.2, 74.3)
Milk powder (3)41.6 (33, 46.1)
Quantities of lactose (g/100g) in New Zealand diary products. Data from New Zealand FOODfiles 2018 [2]
  1. Upton J, & George P. (2010) The prevalence of lactose intolerance (adult hypolactasia) in a randomly selected New Zealand population Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 123(1308).
  2. Sivakumaran S, Huffman L, Sivakumaran S (2018) The New Zealand Food Composition Database: A useful tool for assessing New Zealanders’ nutrient intake. 238, 101-110. DOI:

More resources

Allergy New Zealand – provides support, advocacy and information for people living with allergy.

Keywords: cheese, dairy, FOODfiles, lactose free, lactose intolerance, New Zealand food composition data base.

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