Low Lactose Dairy vs Plant Protein
Ana Reisdorf unpacks how low lactose dairy beats plant protein in quality and digestive comfort.
02 November 2020
Note: In this article we talk about plant-based milks. In some regions, like the European Union the term milk has been assigned exclusively to animal-based products and can therefore not be used to describe alternatives based on plant sources.
With the rise in demand for plant-based proteins, it’s important to take note of the various misconceptions about animal based protein, particularly with respect to dairy.
Many consumers may be making the shift to plant-based dairy alternatives (like milk-type products from plant proteins) without considering the impact that the reduced nutritional value of these products may have on overall diet quality, when compared to low lactose dairy.
Prevalence of lactose intolerance
While lactose intolerance is a common digestive complaint, the true prevalence of this condition is unknown. Accuracy regarding the prevalence is difficult to assess due to the fundamental limitations associated with lactose intolerance.
These limitations include improper diagnosis, subjectivity of symptoms, lack of a standardized assessment, and no consistent definition.1
Even in cases where an accurate diagnosis of lactose intolerance exists, most people can tolerate some amount of lactose without having any symptoms. Estimates suggest that individuals can tolerate as much as 18 grams of lactose daily, and up to 12 grams in one sitting.2
Furthermore, a gradual, steady introduction of small amounts of dairy products may help some people that once had minor symptoms, adapt more easily to lactose intake.
The amount of lactose that individual with some level of lactose intolerance can tolerate daily
Silanikove N, Leitner G, Merin U. The Interrelationships between Lactose Intolerance and the Modern Dairy Industry: Global Perspectives in Evolutional and Historical Backgrounds. Nutrients. 2015;7(9):7312-7331. Published 2015 Aug 31.
Benefits of dairy consumption
Many believe that mild lactose intolerance is a reason to eliminate dairy and that plant-based milks are nutritionally equivalent. But, unlike most plant-based milks dairy intake contributes nine essential nutrients to the diet. The exclusion of all dairy products could potentially lead to the development of micronutrient deficiencies.
Dairy products are a major source of protein, calcium, phosphorus, vitamin B12 and vitamin A. These are essential nutrients for health, missing in many plant-based products.
Additionally, research has shown that healthy eating patterns that include dairy have been linked to health benefits such as reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes in adults and improved bone health.3
The exclusion of all dairy products could potentially lead to the development of micronutrient deficiencies.
Ana Reisdorf, MS, RD
Quality and digestibility of low lactose dairy
Consumers have recently shifted towards a plant-based diet citing a desire for a healthier lifestyle and increased environmental awareness.4 However, many consumers may not be fully aware of the highly processed nature of many plant-based proteins including that of plant-based milks.
Moreover, plant-based milks tend to have added sugar and a lower total protein content compared to their dairy counterparts.
When assessing the protein quality of dairy, amino acid composition, digestibility, and bioavailability are all taken into consideration.
Protein from animal sources is generally higher quality versus plant-based protein due to its wider array of essential amino acids and high bioavailability.5
Low lactose dairy provides an important source of high quality protein along with other essential nutrients.
The elimination of dairy related to lactose intolerance or a shift to plant-based eating may place individuals at unnecessary risk for micronutrient deficiencies.
The amino acid profile of low lactose dairy and its increased bioavailability make it an excellent high quality protein choice for those concerned with nutrition quality and digestive comfort.
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
Ana Reisdorf, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and freelance writer with 12-years of experience in the field of nutrition and dietetics.
-  Bailey RK, Fileti CP, Keith J, Tropez-Sims S, Price W, Allison-Ottey SD. Lactose intolerance and health disparities among African Americans and Hispanic Americans: an updated consensus statement. J Natl Med Assoc. 2013 Summer;105(2):112-27. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24079212/
-  Silanikove N, Leitner G, Merin U. The Interrelationships between Lactose Intolerance and the Modern Dairy Industry: Global Perspectives in Evolutional and Historical Backgrounds. Nutrients. 2015;7(9):7312-7331. Published 2015 Aug 31. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4586535/ (Full article)
-  Bhavadharini B, Dehghan M, Mente A, et a.Association of dairy consumption with metabolic syndrome, hypertension and diabetes in 147 812 individuals from 21 countries. BMJ Open Diabetes Research and Care 2020;8:e000826. https://drc.bmj.com/content/8/1/e000826 (Full article)
-  Aydar, Elif & Tutuncu, Sena & Ozcelik, Beraat. (2020). Plant-based milk substitutes: Bioactive compounds, conventional and novel processes, bioavailability studies, and health effects. Journal of Functional Foods. 70. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1756464620301997 (Full article)
-  Schaafsma G. Advantages and limitations of the protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS) as a method for evaluating protein quality in human diets. Br J Nutr 2012;108: S333-S336. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23107546/