The Best Lactose-Free Milks You Can Buy — and How They’re Produced
Plant-based milk options have been becoming more and popular and increasingly commercially available. While the consumption of some nut milks can be traced as far back as the 13th century, milk from mammals goes back even further, and it’s still the most popular option globally. But many people have trouble digesting lactose: In fact, nearly 30 million American adults have some degree of lactose intolerance. One alternative to regular dairy milk comes in the form of lactose-free milks — a relatively new invention in the long history of milk.
What exactly is lactose?
Lactose is found in milk derived from mammals. This includes cow, sheep, goat, and, yes, even human milk. This naturally-occurring sugar isn’t found anywhere else in nature and was designed by our bodies only to be digestible during our infancy and early childhood. Over the years, as the consumption of milk products became part of the regular human diet beyond those early stages, many developed a lactose tolerance by producing an enzyme in the small intestines called “lactase” to help us more easily digest lactose and avoid some of the uncomfortable symptoms of lactose intolerance, like bloating and gas.
Sometimes enjoying a bowl of oatmeal with milk (or a big cup of icy cold milk with a cookie) contributes to your overall health and happiness — and we support that. But for those with a lactose intolerance, that becomes a little trickier. Luckily, technology to produce lactose-free milk has been on the market for some years — and there are more and more lactose-free milks to choose among.
What is lactose-free milk and how is it produced?
Lactose-free milk is exactly what it sounds like: Milk that has become free from lactose. And for the most part, lactose-free milk contains the same nutrients as regular milk. Though the methods used to produce it can vary by manufacturer, and they do have an effect on its taste.
The most common technique used to make lactose-free milk is by adding lactase in a synthetic form, causing the lactose to break down into glucose and galactose — the same thing the body of a person with no lactose intolerance would do in the digestive process. It is believed that this addition of the enzyme is what tends to give lactose-free milk that extra hint of sweetness.
A second technique involves a filtration system that mechanically separates the lactose from the milk and is sometimes synonymous with “ultra-filtered” milks.
What to look for in the nutrition labels of lactose-free milks
The number one thing to look for that is especially important for those with lactose sensitivities is that the milk is in fact lactose-free. With the rise of milk alternatives, many products claim to be more easily digestible and can be confused for a lactose-free product. According to the FDA, lactose-free milks cannot contain any lactose. So products that simply have a reduced amount of lactose must be labeled in a way that makes that clear. It’s also easy to confuse casein-free for lactose-free. While casein and lactose both can cause similar digestive discomforts, casein is a protein that gives milk its white color, and is not the same as lactose.
And as mentioned earlier, the addition of lactase can give lactose-free milks a sweeter taste, but that doesn’t mean that manufacturers don’t sometimes add sugar to the milk. An eight-ounce glass of regular whole milk typically contains 12 grams of natural sugar and lactose-free milks should be around the same. Checking the label to be sure no sugars have been added is a smart move.
Our favorite lactose-free milks
When we began our search for lactose-free milks, we had to be sure they were readily available in our local grocery store, which limited our ability to test more brands. For example, in our part of the U.S., Chobani yogurt products take up a lot of shelf space, but when we went looking for their lactose-free milk, it was nowhere to be found. What we ended up with was a list of our top four favorites from the whole and 2% varieties — ultimately determined by taste, the company ethos, and a high preference for organic, no-sugar-added options.
1. Organic Valley Lactose-Free Whole Milk
Organic Valley partners with certified organic farmers around the country in an effort to help them rejuvenate their lands and support their local economies, in turn ensuring that strict organic farming standards are maintained in the production of their milk products.
What we liked:
- Creamy taste
- Mildly sweet (no added sugars, just lactase)
- No antibiotics, synthetic hormones, or toxic pesticides
- Sustainable practices
2. Horizon Organic Lactose-Free 2% Reduced Fat Milk
Horizon appears to be checking off the list in their commitment to the environment, animal welfare, and local communities. Some of their practices include powering their processing and packaging facilities with 100% renewable wind energy, ensuring their cows are free to roam and are fed non-GMO and organic foods, and obtaining B Corp certification.
- Creamier than most reduced-fat milks
- Pleasant, grassy finish
- USDA Certified Organic
- Certified B Corporation
3. 365 Lactose-Free Whole Milk
The 365 brand is a private label owned by Whole Foods. The company is known for their commitment to giving, and note that they support hundreds of partnerships and initiatives each year. Their lactose-free whole milk may not be organic, but the company’s values coupled with the taste helped it earn a place on our list.
- Rich, full-body taste
- Not overly sweet (no added sugars, just lactase)
- Commitment to community and the environment
4. Clover Sonoma Lactose-Free 2% Reduced Fat Milk
Clover Sonoma is a relatively small brand based in Northern California. Not only are they B Corp certified, but they’re also the first, and one of only four, dairy brands to become American Humane certified. This means that their pledge to animals and their environment is verifiable.
- Tastes like whole milk
- Slight sweet taste (no added sugars, just lactase)
- Family-owned third generation dairy brand
- Certified B Corp
Good food brings people together. So do good emails.