If you’re on a low FODMAP diet for IBS or other digestive issues, you may think you need to avoid cheese altogether. However, you can still enjoy cheese in moderation! Unless you’re allergic to dairy or on a vegan diet, there’s no reason you shouldn’t eat some low-lactose dairy, including cheese, to reap the benefits of calcium, vitamin D, protein, and phosphorus. The low FODMAP diet is not a dairy-free diet, but a low-lactose diet. In other words, some cheeses have a safe amount of lactose, while some are off-limits. So which cheeses have an acceptable amount of lactose, which ones do you need to stay away from, and how can you tell the difference between the two (1,2)?
Lactose in aged vs. unaged cheese
Lactose falls under the “D” in the word FODMAP, as a disaccharide – a carbohydrate made up of sugar molecules, found in milk and other dairy products. It can be difficult for people with IBS to break down lactose, which means it sits long enough to ferment. This causes gas, bloating, pain, and changes in bowel movements (2).
Lactose is found in whey. As cheese is being made, the whey is separated from the curds and drained off, removing much of the lactose content. As the cheese ages, mold and bacteria eat much of the remaining lactose over time, turning it into lactic acid. For this reason, aged cheeses are the way to go for a low FODMAP diet! Whether hard or soft, aged cheeses have no to very little lactose content, and are elimination phase safe for the FODMAP diet. Some aged, low FODMAP cheese options include:
- Blue Cheese
- Parmesan (1, 3)
Unaged cheeses can have more lactose content, which is variable depending on how much whey is left in the cheese. Because they don’t go through a long aging process the lactose in the cheese is not converted to lactic acid, and instead some remains. Most of these cheeses still have low FODMAP portion sizes, but you’ll need to be careful of overindulging. This includes cheeses like:
- queso fresco
- cream cheese
- goat cheese
- cottage cheese (1,3)
For more detailed information, the Monash University app can be very helpful for discovering the correct portion sizes of specific cheeses for a low FODMAP diet. **Note that processed cheese and dairy spreads are made by adding in high lactose whey or milk and can contain added FODMAP ingredients, so should be avoided (2).
How to spot low-lactose or lactose-free cheese:
First, make sure there are no added sugars, (there typically are no added sugars in cheese). Look at the nutrition label — any lactose will be found in the “sugars” line, as lactose is a milk sugar. If the nutrition label says 0g sugar, the cheese is lactose-free or very low lactose! It could contain some lactose at .4g or below, which should be tolerable, even for most lactose-intolerant people. To adhere to a low FODMAP serving, the Monash app recommends 1g or lower of lactose per serving of cheese. There are some people who are so lactose intolerant they cannot tolerate even a low decimal percentage of lactose, which has been rounded down to zero. This is not true of most people, but some are extra sensitive (1,3).
Other things to consider:
- Make sure to think about portion size. If there is a low level of lactose in one portion that does not register in one serving, it could quickly add up amongst multiple servings to be a more detectable amount of lactose, so be wary of that. Different cheeses have different standard serving sizes, but typically it is between 1-2 oz (1,2).
- Be careful with processed cheeses and spreads, which can have other FODMAP ingredients in them, like inulin. Vegan cheeses, being processed, fall into this category as well (1,2).
- Unrelated to FODMAPs, cheeses can be high in fat, and high-fat foods can be a trigger for some people.
- Some people are also allergic to casein, the protein in milk, which can cause an inflammatory immune reaction (1).
Few things can replace, the rich, creamy flavor of your favorite cheeses, and unless you’re lactose intolerant or have a dairy allergy, you can still eat cheese on the low FODMAP diet! Given the health benefits of dairy products, and the need to keep as much diversity in your diet as possible, there’s no reason to avoid low lactose dairy products, including cheeses, if you want to include them in your diet, or FODMAP friendly recipes. Just make sure you keep tabs on your portion sizes, check the ingredient list and nutrition labels for sugar content to discern which cheeses are low/ no lactose, and avoid processed cheeses and spreads which could contain additives that are low FODMAP. If you find you need more help with navigating lactose and avoiding possible triggers, speak to a registered dietitian or doctor ( 2, 3).
1. Catsos, Patsy. “Cheese and FODMAPs.” ibsfree.net. GI Nutrition Inc., June 9, 2014. https://www.ibsfree.net/news/2014/6/8/cheese-and-fodmaps.
2. Hardy, Andrea. “What Cheeses are Low FODMAP?” irritablebowelsyndrome.net. Health Union LLC., March 27, 2019. https://irritablebowelsyndrome.net/food/cheese-low-fodmap.
3. Scott, Alana. “What Cheeses are Low FODMAP? (Low Lactose).” alittlebityummy.com. A Little Bit Yummy, May 27, 2019. https://alittlebityummy.com/what-cheeses-are-low-fodmap-low-lactose/.