Lactose, Lactic acid, Lactase, or the Lac(k) Thereof (and why wine is still okay)

 Some time ago, an inquisitive mind inquired of me as to whether being lactose intolerant could affect the sufferer’s tolerance of wine that has undergone malolactic fermentation. Fair question. “Lactose” and “lactic” are obviously related, and thinking about an intolerance to the “lactic” in wine is a sensible leap with everyone and their brother speculating over what causes wine headaches and the like (derivatory of the overarching food intolerance fad, I expect.)

 The good and the bad news is that lactose intolerance has no bearing whatsoever on the ability to digest malolactically-fermented wine. Good news, as the lactose-intolerant among us can drink wine without reservation. Bad news, as the lactose-intolerant among us are equally as enlightened as everyone else as far as identifying a cause of the wily wine headache, i.e. still in the dark.

 Short answer: lactose intolerance is unrelated to the ability to tolerate wine that has undergone malolactic fermentation.

Longer answer: Most people who react poorly to lactose suffer from an intolerance, not an allergy. Allergies are inappropriate immune responses to specific epitopes, which can be thought of as molecular shapes. An intolerance, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily an immune response. Lactose intolerance is caused by a deficiency in the enzyme responsible for breaking down lactose in the small intestine. Since we can only absorb lactose after it has been broken down into its component parts – glucose and galactose – a lactase deficiency means that undigested lactose builds up in the intestines to cause bloating, diarrhea, gas, and other discomforts. Unlike lactose, lactic acid can be absorbed without first being acted upon by the lactase enzyme.

Incidentally, even if lactic acid absorption was somehow related to lactose absorption, quantity would be a pertinent consideration. Milk contains 2-8% lactose, i.e. relatively a whole lot, while wine contains much less than 1% lactic acid.

In conclusion, then, the lactic acid in wine should be of no concern to most people who need to avoid lactose. A glass of wine makes a far friendlier companion to a good dinner than a glass of milk, don’t you think?

11 thoughts on “Lactose, Lactic acid, Lactase, or the Lac(k) Thereof (and why wine is still okay)

  1. if people think that lactose and lactic acid are the same thing, for whatever reason (lack of chemistry knowledge, lack of biology knowledge, lack of reading comprehension), let them. I hope they think that olive oil, and motor oil are the same because they are both oil. Or the nuclear bombs and nuclear families are both radioactive and they should stay away from both. It will make the world much easier to move around when I see all these morons cowering in the corner because there is radiation coming from the sun, and nuclear blast sites and chernobyl are both filled with radiation.

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  3. Given it is now Jan 2012 you have probably heard that white wine is usually fermented with milk products. The labels tell us so – good on them. I am lactose intolerent and only rarely now drink white wine and suffer when I do so!

    • Carmel, I’m guessing that you hail from somewhere in the EU, Australia, or New Zealand. The FDA has yet to require wine labels in the United States to indicate whether the wine was produced using casein derived from milk.

      I’m not sure that you’re quite right that “white wine is usually fermented with milk products.” Casein is one of many products used to fine wine (a separate step from filtration) and is used more often in white than red wine — and acidity adjustments are sometimes made using calcium salts that can be derived from milk — but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that most or all white wine involves casein. While trace amounts may be found in the wine, too — and while these trace amounts may be enough to trigger symptoms in very highly sensitive individuals — milk products aren’t an ingredient so much as a processing agent, just like oak barrels aren’t an ingredient in the wine but a processing agent and yet oak-derived compounds can be found in wine aged in oak barrels.

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  5. This will sound crazy but I have found that drinking red wine sometimes helps with the lactose intolerance… I eat a margarita pizza slice with a glass of wine and I am ok, same for a little cheddar cheese. I am highly lactose intolerant; has anyone experienced anything similiar?

  6. I discovered that Australian red wine contains milk and egg and therefore am unable to drink Australain red but can drink other reds.
    I can’t drink white wine as it affects me, also lemonade, soda water, prosecco or anything carbonated. I can’t drink cows milk but can drink and eat goats milk and butter.
    Also, in England there is a milk called ‘Lactofree’ but it still contains 0.03% lactose – how can they call it Lactofree and say it is Lactose free?

    • Thanks for the comment, Cathy, but at the risk of making things more complicated, I’m afraid that your discovery about Australian red wine isn’t quite that simple. No wine “contains” milk or eggs. Eggs and products derived from milk are used as processing agents in some wines worldwide, not just in Australia. Plenty of good research shows that virtually nothing from the eggs or milk shows up in the finished wine. In other words, if you’re finding that you can drink red wine from anywhere other than Australia, it’s not because Australian wines contain milk and egg. They don’t, and even in the very, very, very unlikely case that you had a severe allergy to tiny, tiny quantities of both of those processing agents, you’d then have problems with some (but not all) wines from all over the world. As for the Lactofree milk, .003% is a trace amount and too little to cause problems for people who have lactose sensitivities; for all practical purposes for the vast, vast majority of people (everyone other than the very, very rare person with an incredibly sensitive allergy to lactose caused by exposure to the molecule, rather than a sensitivity to lactose caused by inability to digest larger quantities of the molecule, which is nearly every lactose-sensitive person’s problem), the milk is in fact lactose free.

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