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Ask the TK: Lactose-Free Substitutions

Q. My husband is lactose-intolerant. Thanks to Lactaid, I have a substitute for regular milk, and thanks to Kraft shredded/loaf cheeses, I have a cheese option. And there are a number of non-dairy butter substitutes out there. Do you have any suggestions for items that don't have easy solutions, like cream, half/half, sour cream and cream cheese?

Q. My husband is lactose-intolerant. Thanks to Lactaid, I have a substitute for regular milk, and thanks to Kraft shredded/loaf cheeses, I have a cheese option. And there are a number of non-dairy butter substitutes out there. Do you have any suggestions for items that don't have easy solutions, like cream, half/half, sour cream and cream cheese?

Along those lines, I have noticed that in baking, recipes often call for unsalted butter. If I am using a vegan spread like Earth Balance, unsalted isn't an option. Do I need to make other considerations in my recipes if I can't use unsalted butter?

A. These are great questions. We asked Registered Dietitian Kathy Kitchens Downie and Senior Food Editor Ann Pittman, who responded with some great tips and substitution suggestions.

Before we get into substitutions, let's start with a little background on the topic in general. Lactose intolerance--or the reduced ability to digest the main carbohydrates in milk and dairy products--is quite common around the world. The tricky thing with lactose intolerance is that many people can digest and tolerate small amounts of lactose, but tolerance varies widely among individuals.

In most cases, you don't have to cut out milk and dairy totally from your diet--especially when dairy products are consumed in smaller amounts throughout the day. Besides, some dairy foods have varying amounts of lactose in them. Generally, aged, fermented cheeses have less lactose than fresh cheeses, like cottage cheese, for example, since the healthy bacteria used in the fermentation process help digest some of the milk sugars for you.

While lactose-free options abound at the grocery store for milks, cheeses, and butter-like spreads, remember that it’s not always a simple substitution when working recipes—especially those for baked goods that rely on specific amounts of carbohydrates, protein, or fat for success.

Great dairy-free substitution ideas for cooking:

  • Soy-based products are also good lactose-free options. For example, soy cheeses, soy cream cheese (like Tofutti), soy milks (many brands and flavors now available), and soy ice creams (like Soy Delicious) are ideal alternatives to their dairy counterparts.
  • A trans fat-free margarine is a good substitute for butter. However, butter in small amounts—like a pat spread on bread or the amount in a serving of a Cooking Light baked good—may be tolerated by some.
  • Nut butters—like almond, cashew, macadamia butters or almond milk—are also exciting options to try on breads or in baked goods.
  • Non-dairy milks can add exciting flavors to ordinary dishes. For instance, rice or almond milks are great on hot or cold cereals while light coconut milk enriches Southeast Asian noodles, tofus, or soups.

While dairy-free substitutions often work fine in cooking, baking is another story. We would not recommend using a vegan spread as a butter substitute, especially not in baking. We went to the Earth Balance website and checked the ingredients label of their buttery spread—it’s made of vegetable oil, water, and soy protein (among other ingredients). Most simply stated, those ingredients won’t behave the same as butter in a baked good; it’ll be a wetter ingredient that may make the end product doughy or wet, and it likely lacks some of the caramelization properties of butter.

If you want to offer some butter-free recipe suggestions, try the Crunchy Sesame Cookies or Macadamia Butter Cookies with Dried Cranberries.

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