Is it time to revise the approach to lactose in dairy?

Tuesday, 20 April, 2021

Is it time to revise the approach to lactose in dairy?

The International Dairy Federation (IDF) has called for a revised policy approach to how dairy regulators classify lactose.

Responding to a lack of evidence-based information about the important role of lactose as part of a healthy diet, the international dairy authority released its latest bulletin titled Lactose, an important nutrient: Advocating a revised policy approach for dairy and its intrinsic sugar.

Milk, cheese, yoghurt and other cultured/fermented dairy products are composed of complex structures and are important sources of several key nutrients. As part of their nutrient-rich package, dairy foods also contain naturally occurring sugar, lactose.

The IDF says it’s important to consider dairy products in a unique way, giving credit to the important nutritional properties of their intrinsic lactose content.

While excessive intake of added/free sugars is linked to non-communicable diseases, the organisation says there is no evidence linking naturally occurring sugars (such as lactose from dairy products) with chronic disease risk. Rather, lactose, as a naturally occurring sugar in milk, is associated with some specific health properties such as enhancing intestinal calcium absorption in infancy and possibly in the elderly. Recent studies also have shown that unabsorbed lactose could have prebiotic-like effects in the digestive tract.

The IDF says that despite this scientific evidence, in some countries, lactose naturally present in milk or milk products is considered as an added/free sugars by health organisations or authoritative bodies. Furthermore, despite the distinction made between “naturally occurring” and “added/free sugars”, some policies have been proposed to evaluate the health benefits of foods by looking at the total amount of sugars, including lactose.

IDF Director General Caroline Emond said the consumption of dairy products is recommended in dietary guidelines worldwide and is associated with health benefits.

“There is no justification to discourage consumption of naturally occurring lactose in dairy in public health policies. We hope that this IDF bulletin will help national authorities take the uniqueness of lactose into consideration when designing and promoting domestic nutrition policies, especially those recommending reduction in consumption of sugar.”

The implementation of various dietary strategies or food polices aimed at improving health locally or regionally often focus on the total sugar content when evaluating the healthiness of foods, without differentiating between free and naturally occurring sugars.

“It is important that the intent of the policy is considered, and coherence is considered with other policies such as dietary guidelines,” the IDF says in the bulletin.

“If this is not done, it risks unduly penalising nutrient-dense nutritious foods such as dairy which contain intrinsic sugars and impact negatively on the nutrition and health of those who count on milk and dairy food for their protein, vitamins and minerals intake.”

The 32-page bulletin provides in-depth detail on topics introduced by the IDF position paper on lactose issued in September 2020.

Image credit: © STUDIOS

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