Affecting an estimated fifty million people in the U.S , lactose intolerance is a common form of gastrointestinal malabsorption. As a result of inadequate amounts of the enzyme lactase, which breaks lactose down into simpler sugars that the body can absorb more easily, those afflicted with lactose intolerance are unable to digest significant amounts of lactose, a sugar that is found in milk and milk products. Even though the majority of people with this condition have the most common form, primary lactose intolerance, there are those who apparently had been able to digest lactose, but one day find themselves in moderate to severe discomfort after consuming milk products. For those without the condition, the implications of these biological processes might be hard to grasp, but the problems caused by this intolerance are very immediate to those who lack lactase and must be dealt with by removing lactose from their diet.
A doctor is needed to diagnose lactose intolerance because the symptoms often appear outwardly similar to those of other gastrointestinal problems as well as milk allergies, which are related to the proteins rather than the lactose in milk. Discomfort usually begins about thirty minutes to two hours after milk or milk product consumption. As the lactose moves through the digestive tract without being broken down, it reaches the small intestine where it becomes thick and combines with bacteria from the colon to produce excessive hydrogen gas.
Resulting symptoms include aching abdominal pain, nausea, uncomfortable bloating, crippling cramping, diarrhea, flatulence, and borborygmi (stomach growling). The severity of these manifestations depends on how much lactase remains in an individual’s body as well as how much lactose is consumed in one sitting. While lactose intolerance and its accompanying symptoms are rarely dangerous, it is an undeniably unpleasant malady and can often interfere with the daily routines of a person’s life.
After examining the demographic statistics for those with lactose intolerance, many medical experts have suggested that the condition has a genetic basis, as it is prevalent primarily in communities of color. While the total amount of lactase in the body is high at birth for the majority of infants, regardless of ethnicity, this amount drops dramatically around ages five to seven in non-Caucasians and others groups who do not have a traditionally dairy-heavy diet.
While 95% of Asians, 60-80% of African Americans and Ashkenazi Jews, 80-100% of American Indians, and 50-80% of Latinos are lactose intolerant, only a very small proportion of individuals of northern European descent experience any pain as a result of consuming lactose-filled milk products.
There is good news for those adjusting to life with this ailment, however: almost three-quarters of lactose intolerant people will respond well to a lactose-free or lactose-restricted diet.
The bad news is that the communities who are most affected, namely communities of color, are often extremely limited by a lack of dairy alternatives offered where they live. A Food Empowerment Project study documented access to healthy foods, including meat and dairy alternatives, in both high-income and low-income neighborhoods in Santa Clara County, California. The resulting report, entitled Shining a Light on the Valley of Heart’s Delight: Taking a Look at Access to Healthy Foods in Santa Clara County’s Communities of Color and Low-Income Communities (PDF), found that dairy alternatives were only available in approximately 3% of market locations in lower-income areas, which have proportionally much larger populations of ethnic minorities. In comparison, dairy alternatives were available at 23% of locations in higher-income neighborhoods.
Because of the absence of dairy alternatives in lower-income areas, many individuals suffering with lactose intolerance symptoms may not even be aware of the myriad products on the market that offer solutions to their painful and persistent dietary problems. Food Empowerment Project offers a detailed guide to vegan foods, all of which, as the name suggests, are vegan and therefore free of dairy and the troublesome lactose as well. For almost any dairy food imaginable, including butter, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and mayonnaise, there is a vegan alternative.
While Food Empowerment Project recognizes there can never be one solution to a problem as complex as food injustice, for any solution to work, policymakers, corporations, and communities need to work together. Communities wherein lactose intolerance is prevalent need to speak up and let it be known that they need dairy alternatives to make their lives easier and less painful, while the policymakers and corporations need to be ready to listen and affect change.
In addition to the affliction of lactose intolerance, there are plenty of other reasons everyone should have access to non-dairy foods. As the public is becoming more aware of the cruelties inflicted upon cows raised for milk and other farmed animals, as well as the dreadful environmental impact of factory farming, there are more and more people making the choice not to drink milk or consume dairy products.
Choosing to follow a vegan diet is not only better for your health, but has immediate, positive impacts for the animals and the environment.
 R. Alexander Rusynyk and Christopher D. Still. “Lactose intolerance.” 2001. The Journal of American Osteopathic Association 101: S10-S12.http://www.jaoa.org/cgi/reprint/101/4_suppl_1/10S.pdf (9/15/10)
 “Lactose Intolerance.” National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC).http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/lactoseintolerance (9/15/10)
 “Lactose Intolerance: Information for Health Care Providers.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/documents/NICHD_MM_Lactose_FS_rev.pdf. (9/15/10)
 “Shining a Light on the Valley of Heart’s Delight: Taking a Look at Access to Healthy Foods in Santa Clara County’s Communities of Color and Low-Income Communities.” Food Empowerment Project. http://www.foodispower.org/documents/FEP_Report_web_final.pdf [PDF] (9/15/10)