If you think that plant-based is the hot category in dairy, think again. Sales of lactose-free milk grew twice as fast as sales of plant-based beverages in 2019.

In the United States, lactose-free milk is a $1.7 billion retail segment, with 201 million gallons sold in 2020. The category experienced 19% growth in 2020 on both a volume and dollar basis. An impressive 21% of households purchased lactose-free milk in 2020, up from 18% in 2019 and 15% in 2015. (Source: IRI data, courtesy of Dairy Management Inc.)

Lactase persistence, or the ability to digest lactose beyond infancy, is actually a genetic mutation that conferred an evolutionary advantage to mankind. In contrast, lactose malabsorption, or the inability to digest lactose, results in some degree of digestive discomfort know as lactose intolerance. An estimated 30 million to 50 million U.S. consumers are lactose-intolerant. Note that lactose intolerance affects the gastrointestinal system, while milk protein allergy affects the immune system.


On the shelf

While American consumers cannot choose their genes, they can choose from a wide variety of lactose-free dairy products. Lactose-free milks contain all of the protein, vitamins and minerals of regular milk and, in some cases, higher levels of these beneficial nutrients.

Lactose is removed through two basic processes. It can be reduced through ultrafiltration, resulting in milk with up to 50% less total sugar, a selling point for the estimated 67% of consumers who are trying to limit or avoid sugars. Lactose can also be removed by adding a lactase enzyme, which cleaves lactose into its two component sugars, glucose and galactose, resulting in a sweeter milk.

Innovative dairy companies sometimes use both processes to produce milk with less total sugar, as well as a sweetness level that is closer to traditional milk. An example is the new Fairlife Good Moo’d milk, which was introduced in select U.S. stores in January. Fairlife also offers lactose-free creamers, protein shakes and ice cream.

Organic Valley’s lactose-free milks are ultrapasteurized for extended shelf life. The company also offers a lactose-free half & half. The Darigold FIT lactose-free milk line, meanwhile, delivers sustained energy with 75% more protein and 40% less sugar than “regular” whole milk.

For a foamy café taste, La Colombe adds nitrous oxide to its draft lactose-free chocolate milk. And Shamrock Farms Rockin’ Protein line offers a wide range of lactose-free milks with innovative flavors that tout 20 to 30 grams of protein in a 12-ounce serving.

The lactose-free trend spans the globe. In Germany, for example, Emmi Energy produces a lactose-free whey protein drink with 30 grams of protein and 6,800 milligrams of BCAA per 330-milliliter bottle. In England, Tims Dairy produces a lactose-free Greek style kefir.

And Euromonitor predicts that the lactose-free dairy market will grow in the Asia Pacific at double the rate of the regular dairy market (8% versus 4.2%, 2018-2023).


On the horizon

Lactose determination is important for manufacturers for claims of lactose-free dairy.

“There is a need for a simple, rapid, precise or accurate test method to detect lactose in finished products, as well as a rapid check during processing. Current methods to detect lactose are time-consuming and require extensive sample preparation, highly trained personnel and sophisticated instruments,” said Sonia Patel, dairy food application scientist, Midwest Dairy Foods Research Center.

The next generation of lactose-free “dairy” might also be animal-free. Perfect Day uses a fermentation process to convert microflora into proteins that are identical to those found in cow’s milk. Brave Robot uses these proteins in its lactose-free vegan frozen dessert. The ingredient is labeled as “non-animal whey protein.” This will be an interesting trend to watch!