(This post was created in partnership with Real California Milk)
With the increased interest in decolonial food perspectives, many Latines have expressed interest in a more plant-based diet. One food group that Latines have a lot of questions about is dairy. Is it true that Latines are more likely to be lactose intolerant? Is dairy a healthy food? How can we fit real dairy into a healthy Latine diet?
I’ve worked with Real California Milk to answer some of these questions. As a dietitian, I always want my clients to have as many options as possible and I never want to restrict entire food groups. But the rate of lactose intolerance is higher in the Latine population, and we want to be conscientious of that when we talk about dairy. Read on for answers to some of these questions and visit Real California Milk’s website to get a copy of the guide I’ve created to help you navigate dairy in Latine diets.
What do the DGAs say about dairy?
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) recommend people over the age of 2 years old consume 2-3 cups of dairy per day. This can include milk, yogurt, cheese or fortified soy alternatives like soy milk. As a dietitian specializing in Latine diets, I’ve talked to other dietitians about how this recommendation can be difficult to meet due to increased lactose intolerance in the Latine community.
Nutrition in dairy
The reason dairy is featured prominently in the DGAs is that dairy is an accessible and convenient source of 13 essential nutrients, including those that my Latine clients frequently under consume like calcium, potassium, vitamin D, and even vitamin B12. Dairy products also provide a good balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fat compared to non-dairy alternatives.
Lactose intolerance and Latinos
Lactose intolerance is common in the Latino community. Approximately 50% of Mexican-Americans are estimated to experience lactose intolerance, which may come with symptoms like stomach discomfort or gas after eating certain dairy products.
What is lactose intolerance?
Humans digest lactose by breaking lactose down using an enzyme called lactase. People with lactose intolerance begin to produce less lactase over time, meaning they are less able to break down lactose. This can cause symptoms such as upset stomach and gas. One misconception people often have is that people with lactose intolerance cannot have any dairy whatsoever.
But since lactose intolerance is usually caused by decreased lactase production instead of no lactase, people with lactose intolerance can usually tolerate a small amount of real dairy products or certain dairy products that are lower in lactose such as lactose-free milk, hard cheeses or yogurt.
Why are Latinos more likely to have lactose intolerance?
There’s a genetic element to lactose tolerance. African and Indigenous ancestry may both increase the likelihood of lactose intolerance. For both of these groups, dairy foods were introduced relatively recently (within the last 500-600 years). Indigenous diets in Latin America did not historically use dairy foods, and instead obtained calcium from foods like corn tortillas, beans, seeds, and perhaps other animal foods like fish.
Where does real dairy fit into our food culture?
While dairy products are a relatively recent introduction to Latine diets, they are still a part of our food culture. We see real dairy products used frequently in desserts or drinks like arroz con leche, atole, flan, etc. Additionally, dairy products may be featured in our main meals as more of a garnish. We may add a sprinkle of cheese on top of our sopes, or add a drizzle of crema to our soup, for example.
One real dairy product that has been gaining popularity lately is yogurt drinks. Latine people may be interested in these products because they have heard they’re good for gut health due to the live and active cultures. The other benefit to these products is the live and active cultures can help digest lactose, making them more tolerable for people with lactose intolerance.
What does lactose intolerance mean for my health?
The main impacts of lactose intolerance are the uncomfortable symptoms such as stomach discomfort. In the long term, people who avoid dairy due to their lactose intolerance may be at higher risk for nutrient deficiencies, especially nutrients like calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12 which are mostly found in animal products. This could increase risk of osteoporosis in the long-run, as well.
Meeting nutrition needs with lactose intolerance
As a dietitian, my nutrition philosophy is always to impose as few restrictions as possible, and to give my clients as many different ways to meet their nutrition needs as possible.
While historically, our ancestors may have been able to meet their nutrition needs without dairy, we are living in a different landscape today. The way we make foods like corn tortillas has changed, and they are not as big a source of calcium as they used to be.
While historically, corn tortillas may have been able to provide about 30% of calcium needs in a heritage diet, modern commercially made tortillas typically provide about 2-4% of calcium needs in one serving. Compare this to one cup of low-fat yogurt, which provides about 37% of daily calcium needs.5
Nutrition choices have to consider modern food systems, as well as our lifestyles. The reality of our lifestyles in this day and age allows less time for food preparation and makes convenient, accessible foods more important. Real dairy products are a convenient and affordable way to meet protein and calcium requirements while still being mostly unprocessed, whole foods.
When I work with clients with lactose intolerance, I help them come up with a plan that includes using lower lactose dairy products like yogurt and certain cheeses, as well as incorporating some heritage sources of calcium like corn tortillas, beans, and chia seeds.
I’ve worked with Real California Milk to create a guide to real dairy products in Latine diets, including navigating lactose intolerance while meeting nutrient requirements.
To learn more, get a copy of the guide from Real California Milk available here.
While we want to be aware of lactose intolerance and the discomfort it can cause, there’s no need for Latines to go completely dairy-free if they don’t want to.
As a dietitian, I see my clients are most successful when they have the most options and can be as flexible as possible. This is why it’s so important to be aware of different ways you can incorporate real dairy even if you’re sensitive to lactose.
U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020. Available at DietaryGuidelines.gov.
13 ways milk can help your body. Real California Milk website. https://www.californiadairypressroom.com/Press_Kit/The_Power_of_Real_Milk. Accessed December 12, 2022.
Bailey RK, et al. Lactose intolerance and health disparities among African Americans and Hispanic Americans: an updated consensus statement. J Natl Med Assoc. 2013;105(2):112-27.
Serna-Saldivar SO, et al. Effect of lime treatment on the availability of calcium in diets of tortillas and beans: Rat growth and balance studies. Cereal Chem. 1991;68(6):565-570.
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. FoodData Central, 2019. fdc.nal.usda.gov.