I was looking into fermented dairy products this week, which got me thinking about those people who cannot tolerate dairy. And you know what my most interesting discovery is? That the biggest misconception people have is that lactose intolerance and dairy allergy is the same thing. Turns out that, while the symptoms may be similar, the causes of lactose intolerance and milk allergy are not the same and we are talking about two totally different concepts.
In summary, lactose intolerance is body’s inability to break down the sugar found in milk (and is one of the most common food intolerances). Dairy allergy, on the other hand, is an allergy caused by the protein in milk – most often casein, the main and most problematic protein found in milk.
Let us now look into each one in more details to gain better understanding of the subject.
Lactose intolerance is caused by your stomach’s inability to properly digest lactose, which is sugar found in milk. It occurs when people stop making lactase, the digestive enzyme located along the small intestinal wall. This enzyme is essential for the proper digestion of milk and the absorption of milk nutrients as it helps break down lactose (which can’t be absorbed directly) into glucose and galactose for easy digestion. Without lactase, lactose is instead metabolized by bacteria, which can cause stomach upset, flatulence, diarrhea, bloating, nausea and other unwelcome gastrointestinal problems.
If you are lactose intolerant, you need to avoid any foods that contain lactose. While milk and many dairy products will cause the typical digestive symptoms, fermented products – like yogurt, kefir, curd – wont. This is because bacteria have already broken down much of the lactose during the fermentation process, essentially “pre-digesting” it. During this process, the lactose of milk is converted into lactic acid a small carbon-based acid – making it easier to digest. Even though the names sound very similar, lactic acid and lactose are very different molecules. If you’re lactose intolerant, you can consume foods that contain lactic acid without any difficulty. In fact, your body produces lactic acid whenever you break down sugars for energy.
Many people mistakenly assume that lactose is also the major contributor to dairy allergies. However, milk allergy is a much trickier condition that is triggered by body’s inability to break up proteins found in milk. The immune system identifies milk proteins as harmful and releases antibodies called immunoglobulin E into your bloodstream. These antibodies then release histamine, which causes milk allergy symptoms.
Whole milk contains two major proteins – casein and whey – as well as fats and sugars. The primary group of milk proteins are the caseins, which make up between 75% and 85% of proteins in milk. The other proteins contained in milk are soluble serum proteins, more commonly known as whey proteins.
The casein proteins derive their name from the Latin word for cheese, “caseus”. Basically, caseins are the group of milk proteins that forms the curd during cheese-making process. Whey is a by-product of cheese production – a thin liquid that is left over when cheese is made. Casein is considered a “slow” protein and digests more slowly than whey, so it will stay in your stomach longer. Whey digests more quickly but doesn’t digest as completely as casein.
Most dairy products contain casein, but not all. Since casein is a protein, it is found in dairy products that have a higher protein content, such as milk, yogurt, kefir, cheese etc. Dairy products that contain barely any protein, such as butter and cream, only have traces of casein. Ghee, or clarified butter, is the only dairy-derived product that is completely free of casein.
Looking at the causes of digestive discomfort caused by dairy products, we can conclude that while people with a milk allergy need to eliminate milk and milk products entirely from their diets, those with lactose intolerance, can tolerate such fermented milk products as yogurt, kefir, curd, cottage cheese and so on. Naturally present bacteria in fermented and unsweetened milk products will even help with the digestive process.
For those of us who do tolerate dairy well, organic dairy products (that do not contain antibiotics, hormones and pesticides) can provide a wonderful source of protein, vitamins and minerals to our diets. One dairy product that not only offers a wide range of vitamins and minerals, but also provides a variety of probiotic organisms and powerful healing qualities, is kefir. It’s no wonder that the word “kefir” comes from a Turkish word “keif”, which literally translates to “good feeling”.
Kefir is a fermented milk product that originated centuries ago in the Caucasus mountains. It is slightly sour and carbonated due to the fermentation activity of the symbiotic colony of bacteria that make up the “grains” (a grain-like matrix of proteins, lipids, and sugars that feed the microbes) used to culture the milk The various types of beneficial microbiota contained in kefir make it one of the most potent probiotic foods available.
What I want to talk about in today’s recipe is not about the process of making kefir however, but about using kefir as a substitute for rennet (the common enzyme used to coagulate fresh milk to give a sweet, non-acidified curd) to coagulate milk.
I want to talk about using a combination of milk and kefir in order to make fresh curd (similar to cottage cheese or ricotta). Using kefir to make curd not only produces delicate cheese with a fine texture and wonderful mellow flavour, but is also a quick, easy, full proof recipe.
All you need is an equal amount of kefir and milk (1 litre to 1 litre, for example).
Gently heat milk until just boiling and starting to rise. At his point, while gently stirring the milk, slowly pour in kefir in a slow stream. Take off the heat and put the pot into a sink filled with cold water to help cool down the liquid. In a few minutes you will see the curds begin to separate from the whey. Let it sit for 5 minutes for this separation process to complete.
Now place an empty pot into the sink and sit a colander lined with cheese cloth on top of it. Poor the cooled separated mixture into the colander and you will see that draining the coagulated milk will separate the curd, which will be left in the cloth, from whey, which is the clear-ish liquid that would drain into the pot.
Let curds drain for a few minutes before picking up the four corners of the muslin cloth, wrapping one of them around and gently tying the curd inside the cloth. Then use the other two corners to hang the curd to drain above the colander – I find that just hanging it on the tap is easiest. Let it hang and drain for an hour or so and you will find yourself with a pound of delicious homemade cheese.
Another thing you will be left with is a pot of whey – which is milk with the fats and solids pulled out (the solids are now in your cheese). It’s primarily water but also contains lactose which is water soluble and ends up draining off with the whey.
The most valuable ingredient in whey is the whey protein. You will still get protein, minerals and some vitamins in whey. And if it’s not been pasteurized, many water soluble vitamins such as various B complex & C vitamins remain intact and you will also get the beneficial probiotic bacteria. It is thus not surprising that in industrial curd production the liquid leftover from cheese making is used to make protein powders. It is concentrated and dried, and the result is whey protein powder – considered a “fast acting” protein as it is metabolized quickly (unlike casein protein).
Obviously, we are not going to use whey to make protein powder at home. But don’t despair and throw it away! It has a magnitude of uses – from liquid substitute in baking to a base for making stocks!
The delicate curd that you have left after draining of the way is not only great eaten on its own – for example for breakfast topped with wild berries and some Greek yogurt – but is also a great staple to have when you need to put together some impressive, yet quick, canapés.
I use Mary’s Gone crackers (which are gluten-free crackers based on quinoa, millet and brown rice) as a base, top them with a dollop of curd and then either with a:
– Helping of olive tapenade (just pulse some black olives, garlic, anchovies, capers and pine nuts to get this beautiful spread)
– Or, my favourite, a drizzle of some of your best quality spicy olive oil, fresh grating of lemon zest and a little fresh mint
Arrange them on a board in a chess pattern and you have a striking and delicious snack to serve to your guests!