The Best Cheeses to Eat if You're Lactose Intolerant

Good news for the lactose intolerant. Bad news for lovers of Velveeta.

Since cheese is king of the dairy world, an infatuation with pepper jack, provolone, and the rest of their coagulated cohorts might just send you into a downward spiral of dependence on half-priced, double-cheese Little Caesars pies. But for the 65% of the world's adult population that has difficulty digesting lactose, this binge behavior might just end in nausea, cramps, vomiting, and uncontrollable diarrhea.

As a man of the 21st century, I abhor intolerance of any kind, which is why I'm happy to report that there are some cheeses these poor LIIs (or, "Lactose Intolerant Individuals") can still enjoy without the setback of a sour stomach.

What's lactose, and why can't people just learn to tolerate it?

​Lactose is a naturally occurring disaccharide sugar present in milk, transmitted in a diminished degree to nearly all dairy products (which are made of milk). Lactose intolerance is common in young children, but often diminishes or even completely disappears with age. Still, more than half the adult population—particularly those with genealogical roots in Asia and Africa—are afflicted by the disorder. 

The higher the percentage of lactates in cheese, the more likely lactose-sensitive diners will be affected. The trick here is easy: Find the cheeses that contain a relatively small amount of lactates, and avoid those with elevated sugar levels. Good news for people who like simplicity. Bad news for people who like feta.

Does this mean lactose-intolerant people can never have cheese, ever?

Not quite. The fresher the cheese, the more lactose. That's bad. For the most part, though, aged, harder cheeses will have varying portions of their lactose turned into less harmful lactic acid by the time it reaches the charcuterie platter. That's good. In addition, during the aging process, some lactose is separated and drained off with the whey, which brings the lactose percentage down with it. Also good.

Generally, if you are sensitive, you never want a cheese with a sugar content (remember, you can think of lactose as "cheese sugar") approaching 5 grams per serving, at the very least. There are myriad cheeses out there that fit the bill, and come in way under 5 grams of sugar per serving. Some of these cheeses (here's looking at you, Parmesan) have barely measurable amounts.

charcuterie board
Unsplash/Theme Photos

So, what cheeses can lactose-intolerant folks actually eat?

Using lactose percentages composed and collected by the aptly named "Steve Carper's Lactose Intolerance Clearing House" (his numbers are legit and thoroughly sourced, despite the early '90s website), here are some of the most LII-friendly cheeses on the market. Remember, you want to get below 5 grams of sugar per serving, or in these terms, at or below the 2-3% lactose range. For reference, whole milk has a lactose average ranging from 3.7-4.8%.

  • Muenster: 0-1.1% lactose range

  • Camembert: 0-1.8% lactose range

  • Brie: 0-2% lactose range

  • Cheddar: 0-2.1% lactose range

  • Provolone: 0-2.1% lactose range

  • Gouda: 0-2.2% lactose range

  • Blue: 0-2.5% lactose range

  • Parmesan: 0-3.2% lactose range

  • Swiss: 0-3.4% lactose range
greek salad with feta cheese
Unsplash/Dmitry Dreyer

Are there any cheeses that should be avoided outright?

Yup! Fresh cheeses, and those with a lot of curds, tend to have the highest lactose percentages. Here are the main culprits:

  • Feta: Approx. 4.1% average lactose

  • Ricotta: 0.2-5.1% lactose range

  • Colby: 1.6-5.2% lactose range

  • American: 1.6-5.2% lactose range

  • Velveeta: Approx. 9.3% average lactose 

  • American (pasteurized): 0-14.2% lactose range

I'm heading to the cheese store. What's the TL;DR?

1. Err on the side of aged, hard cheese.

2. Softer, fresher cheeses are usually more lactose intense.

3. Generally speaking, the higher the fat content of a cheese, the lower the lactose.

4. Check the sugar content on the label! Anything approaching 2-5 grams of lactose per serving should be avoided, even in moderation.

5. Don't eat a bite of pasteurized American cheese or Velveeta.

There it is, folks! Next time your server is poised over your plate with the Parm, asking you to say when, don't be afraid to let them grate and grate and grate.

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Wil Fulton is a former Senior Development Producer and Podcast Host/Producer at Thrillist. He eats blocks of cheese for breakfast. Seriously. Follow him @wilfulton.