Friday, March 02, 2007

Oh Yeah, The Lactose Thing

OK, OK. I guess I let the cart get a little before the horse in my last entry leading to some testy reader comments. I referenced lactose intolerance before I actually wrote the article about it. Well, here's the article.

I was staying in Boulder for a wedding. My girlfriend and I (now my wife) went to a Southwestern themed restaurant and I ordered red beans and rice, which I ate with hot sauce (of course) and only finished half of. After dinner, we went back to our room and read books. Wild, I know. I remember sitting there reading when the first bout of "wind" hit. Within an hour or so, my bout of wind had grown to epic proportions. I mean, startling proportions, really. I mean, wow!! I actually woke myself up several times in the night, startled, because of the blasts. Before the return flight home I finished the red beans and rice, because, you know, they were delicious! I'll let you imagine the flight.

The medical industry is constantly telling me to eat more beans, vegetables, garlic, onions, all of which are loaded with indigestible carbohydrates and all of which can cause flatulence, bloating, etc. In fact, according to the "Garlic the wonder food website, "individuals who are sensitive to garlic may experience heartburn and flatulence." And garlic is a wonder food, right? says that legumes(beans), milk and milk products, vegetables, root vegetables, fruits, cereals and breads all contribute to flatulence.

Why? Here's as good a primer as any. Basically, there are lots of carbohydrates that people can't digest in our food. These include the oligosaccharides found in beans and vegetables as well as inulin found in garlic and onions and lactose found in milk. These products make it through the small intestine to the large intestine where bacteria digest them and give off methane gas. This methane production leads to gasiness, flatulence, bloating, intestinal cramps, loose stools and the other symptoms if we get a high enough dose.

But here's the thing. Of all of the foods containing indegestible carbohydrates, dairy products are the only ones who are racially selective in who they bother. Not completely, of course. 1 of 4 Africans can and 1 of 5 Europeans can't digest lactose. Latinos are about fifty-fifty, but certainly don't shy away from dairy products. There are populations in Asia - specifically Tibet and Mongolia - and Africa - like the Masai - where most people can. Furthermore, there are lots of dairy products in which the lactose has been pre-digested by bacteria or removed in the whey and thus is of no harm to anyone, including yogurt, sour cream, butter (traditionally, butter is both fermented and drained - modern butter is not fermented and therefore contains trace quantities of lactose) and most cheeses. But the racial thing is why people get so fired up about it. Yet the symptoms of lactose intolerance are no more severe than the symptoms that anyone would get from eating beans or garlic.

If you think I'm just talking trash I'll refer you to a peer reviewed meta-analysis of lactose intolerance studies in the April 2006 edition of the Journal of Nutrition, Lactose intolerance symptoms assessed by meta-analysis: a grain of truth that leads to exaggeration. It concludes, "The results indicate that lactose is not a major cause of symptoms for lactose maldigesters following usual intakes of dairy foods, that is, 1 cup." I rest my case.

I'll let the words of Jeffrey Steingarten take it out because he said it far more eloquently than I would. This is from the introduction to The Man Who Ate Everything.

By closing ourselves off from the bounties of nature, we become failed omnivores. We let down the omnivore team .... Overnight, everybody you meet has become lactose intolerant. It is the chic food fear of the moment. But the truth is that very, very few of us are so seriously afflicted that we cannot drink even a whole glass of milk a day without ill effects .... I cannot figure out why, but the atmosphere in America today rewards this sort of self-deception. Fear and suspicion of food have become the norm. Convivial dinners have dissappeared and with them the sense of festivity and exchange, of community and sacrement."

Amen, Jeffrey.