Vegans of Color

Because we don’t have the luxury of being single-issue

Lactose Intolerance Is Not A Disease January 11, 2009

Filed under: vegan — Alicia @ 11:20 pm

Typically when someone tells you they are lactose intolerant they do it with a mournful look on their face. The face of someone who is missing out on some of the best parts of life because something is terribly wrong with their bodies. Usually the mournful look is met with sympathy from the person they are talking to. What a poor poor soul, not able to digest lactose. Even now as a vegan I have fallen into this all too typical scenario of feeling sorry for the lactose intolerant. Of course I use it as an opportunity to talk about veganism but I unconsciously give them that “sympathy look” nonetheless. The problem is that we have been conditioned to think of lactose intolerance as if it were a disease when in fact it is a normal process of life.


Mammals only need to produce the enzyme lactase (the digestive enzyme that breaks down lactose) until they are weaned. For humans this is somewhere between 2-4 years old. After that we are officially weaned from our mother’s milk and ready to get our complete nutrients from solid foods. According to Drs. Marie Boyle and Sara Long in their book Personal Nutrition 70% of the world’s population is lactose intolerant. With a greater incidence among people of African descent, Mediterranean decent, Native Americans and Asians. Here’s a quick breakdown of the incidence of lactose intolerance amongst people of color:

·         Blacks/African Americans – 80%

·         Native Americans – 80-100%

·         Asians – 90-100%


It is clear that the “lactose intolerant” are not so much the odd man out, who is afflicted with a horrible disease, but instead someone with a normally functioning digestive system. I believe it’s time to turn the tide and change the way we think and talk about lactose intolerance. When someone mentions the fact they or someone they know is lactose intolerant our response should be “Great! So is over 70% of the world’s population” and then explain why. For me, after all the extremely compelling reasons to go vegan were presented to me the one thing that stood out to me the most (and what is ultimately the reason I went vegan) was what an unnatural process it is for an adult mammal to drink the milk of another species. What makes it even more appalling is the cruelty associated with the production of cow’s milk to feed a population that is literally being made sick by it. Changing the perception of lactose intolerance is just one small way to change the way that people think of the milk and milk products that they hold so dear. And you never know, someone like me might hear this information and not only go vegan but stay vegan.



National Institute of Health (National Digestive Disease Information Clearinghouse)


Boyle, M. A., & Long, S. (2007). Personal Nutrition(6th Edition ed.). Belmont, CA, USA: Thomson Wadsworth.


31 Responses to “Lactose Intolerance Is Not A Disease”

  1. akahn Says:

    When you say “Asians” you probably mean East Asians, since dairy is consumed in much of South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East.

  2. Joselle Says:

    This post is awesome and very, very needed. It is truly insane that even though most of the world does not respond well to drinking the milk of another animal, we (and by we, I mostly mean the dairy cartels) have pathologized lactose “intolerance” and have invented Lactaid instead of just realizing that people don’t need to drink another animal’s milk.

    Another thing that gets me going about the consumption of the milk of nonhuman animals is that many people who are disgusted at the sight of a mother breastfeeding a two year old have no compuntion drinking cow’s milk throughout their life. This is another insane line of thinking. Cut out the middlemen of the dairy industry, containers, supermarkets, and a glass and what is the difference between drinking milk from a glass and going directly to a cow and sucking from their udder.

    I used to eat cheese everyday. I thought I couldn’t live without it. I also used to get hives on an almost daily basis. Since going vegan, I’ve noticed that I rarely ever get hives anymore. Although I never saw myself as lactose “intolerant,” I more than likely was. Now I don’t get red welts on my face I have to scratch!

  3. biochemistryquestions Says:

    I agreed with you until you began this paragraph:

    “When someone mentions the fact they or someone they know is lactose intolerant our response should be “Great! So is over 70% of the world’s population” and then explain why. For me, after all the extremely compelling reasons to go vegan were presented to me the one thing that stood out to me the most (and what is ultimately the reason I went vegan) was what an unnatural process it is for an adult mammal to drink the milk of another species. What makes it even more appalling is the cruelty associated with the production of cow’s milk to feed a population that is literally being made sick by it. Changing the perception of lactose intolerance is just one small way to change the way that people think of the milk and milk products that they hold so dear. And you never know, someone like me might hear this information and not only go vegan but stay vegan.”

    I believe that it is not great to have lactose intolerance. These persons can not have acces to a great variety of very nutritious (and tasty) products that contain proteins with very high nutritional value, rich in essential aminoacids, calcium and other important nutritional items.

    I agree with you that it is an ” an unnatural process…for an adult mammal to drink the milk of another species”, but it does not means necessarily that it is wrong. I would say also that some people could see unnatural for an omnivoral animal do not eat meat, like vegans do, but I believe it does not mean that it is wrong.

    “…the production of cow’s milk to feed a population that is literally being made sick by it”. I do not believe that you can support with facts this affirmation. In fact, I believe that historically milk consumption has been absolutely benefitial for mankind, as an important source of nutrients.

    I do not question the decision of somebody to be vegan, and I believe that a person can have reasons to take that decision, but I do not believe that the above mentioned are the right reasons to do that.



  4. slithers Says:

    I think it’s probably not 70%, but it’s certainly a significant portion of the world – I know many people who are (most of whom, unfortunately, continue to eat/drink dairy products).

    As for biochemistryquestions, when you’re talking about “history”, it depends on which history you’re speaking about. Some cultures have had very little or no reliance on cow’s milk, while others (especially Western European and Indian) have had a heavy reliance on it.

    Is dairy necessary for the human diet? No. Is it making some people sick? Absolutely. Is it nutritious? One would expect baby food to be filled with vitamins and minerals and it is. Is it “wrong”? That depends on your morals. Omnivores, however, are biologically equipped to be able to eat either/both vegetable and animal products, so it would be fallacious to claim that it’s “wrong” to eat vegetables, but it is certainly unnecessary and inconsistent to eat something that makes your body sick.

  5. Alyson Says:

    I heard Milton Mills, M.D., of PCRM talk about lactose intolerance and why milk shouldn’t be served in schools at a conference a few months ago.

    He says, ““When you look at the diets of African Americans and Hispanic Americans versus Caucasian Americans, they are very similar in protein content, calorie content, fiber content, et cetera. But these diets have more harmful effects among minority populations. Although unintentional, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines as they exist are really a fundamental form of institutionalized racism in a rather destructive and insidious format.”

    I agree that dairy shouldn’t be considered a staple of the diet. And for some reason, in the USA, it is seen as just that. If you don’t eat dairy, you must be lacking protein, calcium, D and whatever else the dairy industry plugs about their product. When really, not being able to process dairy is normal and fine.

  6. ThoughtCriminal Says:

    Hi biochemistryquestions,

    I would like to address some points you made in your post.

    You refer to cow’s milk products as “very nutricious”, but if you read the original post by Alicia you’ll see that cow’s milk is not nutricious at all to the majority of the Earth’s population. We humans can get our protein (all whole foods contain protein), calcium, and any other vitamins and “nutritional items” from the plant kingdom. These sources are pure and are not loaded with lactose or casein (not to mention cholesterol and other harmful substances) which, according to T Colin Campbell, author of The China Study, are actually detrimental to human health.

    Second, I don’t know one vegan who believes that other animals who are carnivores or omnivores are “wrong” or “unnatural” for eating meat. They eat other animals instinctually to survive and many of their anatomies require that they do so. There is no ethical problem there. We humans have NO nutritional requirement for the flesh or secretions of other animals and in fact, it’s time and time again been proven harmful to human health (do a simple, superficial google search). Vegans object to other humans consuming nonhuman animals because these particular humans only do so, not because they need the nutrients but, because they enjoy the way other animals mutilated bodies and robbed bodily fluids taste. That is what is “wrong” with humans consuming other animals from a vegan perspective.

    Lastly, you say that “I do not believe that you can support with facts this affirmation” in response to Alicia’s quote “…the production of cow’s milk to feed a population that is literally being made sick by it” but then you go on to say, “I believe that historically milk consumption has been absolutely benefitial for mankind, as an important source of nutrients”. It is your statement that cannot be supported factually because you are only referring to some 30% of the world’s population and calling that small percentage “Mankind”. The rest of the world is “lactose intolerant” (read – has a normal digestive system) and is not benefitted, but harmed, by consuming cow’s milk.

  7. steven Says:

    “I agree with you that it is an ‘an unnatural process…for an adult mammal to drink the milk of another species’, but it does not means necessarily that it is wrong.” – biochemistryquestions

    I would avoid the possibly dogmatic word “wrong,” but I would say it’s necessarily exploitative to take another species’ milk. That’s just as good as “wrong” in my book, and reason enough for me to stop supporting it.

  8. Alicia Says:

    Akahn – it has been broken down into various ethnicities throughout Asia but the people of the continent as a whole are what is usually considered Asian in the text. Sometimes they also break it out into Indian but usually just Asian. Just because dairy products are consumed in South & East Asia as well as the Middle East it does not mean that these people aren’t lactose intolerant. Often times within these culture dairy products are consumed in a fermented form with some type of bacteria and/or enzymes added which actually aid in the digestion of milk so in many cases people might not realize they are lactose intolerant if they are consuming dairy products that are typically in the form of yogurts, cheeses, kefir, etc.

    Lactose intolerance also takes on many forms. As a personal example I was never thought of traditionally to be lactose intolerant. But I had allergies to various things my entire childhood and into adulthood. Only after removing dairy products from my diet did my allergies go away (which was proven by several allergy test). Consuming dairy products was throwing off my immune system causing it to identify relatively harmless things as horrible invaders. For my brother who was diagnosed lactose intolerant his symptoms would only show up when he had diary products that were “pure” cow’s milk like butter or milk. He could usually get away with eating yogurts and cheese although he always had a horribly runny nose or “snotty” nose as a child because of his consumption of these dairy products. I say all this to say that simply because you consume dairy products without having bloating, gas, nausea or other GI symptoms it does not mean that you are not lactose intolerant. The GI symptoms are just some of the more noticeable symptoms but there is a very long list of symptoms associated with it.

    Slithers – the 70% quoted is actually correct and comes from the referenced book I spoke of in the blog. The book is actually a nutrition textbook. I am a nutrition/anthropology student and I have stacks and stacks of textbooks and literature which all have the same 70% statistic. If you would like I can get you some of the sources that they used to get this information. You also have to remember that although people of color are the minority in the U.S., worldwide most people are of color so when you have such high incidence of lactose intolerance among Asians (continental Asia), people of African Descent, Native Americans and Hispanics, etc. it greatly effects the overall statistic.

  9. akahn Says:

    That’s a very good point about the fermented milk products.

  10. johanna Says:

    Alicia — great post. Thanks for joining us. 🙂

    And also akahn — good point on specifying who falls under the term ‘Asian’ (& thanks Alicia for clarifying!!), cuz yeah, that varies depends on who’s asking the question & is, um, kind of a big theme in my life right now, hahaha.

    I’m lactose intolerant & people are forever telling me I should take Lactaid… I guess it’s my fault for not making it clear in some situations that I’m actually also vegan & not interested in dairy products or feeling left out by them. Tho’ sometimes it’s that thing you do where you’re trying to make an uncomfortable social atmosphere as safe as possible for you — like if I’m at work & someone offers me cheese it might feel safer for me to tell them I’m lactose intolerant, rather than risking flesh-eater defensiveness by telling them I’m vegan.

    Tho’ yeah, I could do w/o the damn pity!!

  11. Alicia Says:

    biochemistryquestions thank you for your comments, even though I completely disagree with most of your reasoning I do appreciate the feedback. I’m sure many people will be leaving comments in response to your post so I won’t belabor the points. I just wanted to make sure that I clearly stated my position on a discussion of lactose intolerance leading to someone possibely becoming vegan.

    I am in no way saying that this is the sole reason to become vegan but just a nice bonus. For me the realization of what an unnatural process it is for a human to drink a cow’s milk was the trigger that made all the other arguements for veganism come together for me. There are so many reasons to go vegan I would barely even know where to begin! Ethics, Health and the Enviroment are 3 big ones that come to the top of mind for me but depending on who you talk to you will get a different answer. Lactose intolerance and discussions around it are just another bullet point on the list of tools that can be used to help educate the general public.

  12. Adrienne Says:

    I’ve seen the statistics referenced here about rates of lactose intolerance for asians, native americans, and africans/african americans several times, and was wondering – does anybody know of any reliable numbers for what percentage of people of european descent are lactose intolerant if not raised on cow’s milk? From personal experience, I’ve found that I grew up feeling okay with cow’s milk, and didn’t discover how negatively it affected my body until I gave it up. Anyone know of any research on how common that is? Or, any other information showing whether the apparent racial differences in lactose intolerance are actually racial or just a result of what we grow up consuming?

  13. Alicia Says:

    Hey Adrienne that’s a really good question. I’ll have to look in the literature and see what I can find. I’ll also ask some of my professors to see what info they have.

    What I can tell you is that it has nothing to do with race and everything to do with ethnicity. Race is a social construct that really changes depending on the culture/society you grow up in where as ethnicity has more to do with your biological ancestry. The consumption of milk as a child or growing up has nothing to do with whether or not you will be lactose intolerant. As you pointed out you were “ok” growing up consuming cow’s milk but didn’t realize how it was effecting you until you stopped drinking it. I would guess that the proportion of people of European decent that are lactose intolerant is still over 50% (this is me guessing, I will make sure to get the correct number for you). The reason that the rates of lactose intolerance are lower in people of European decent is because of pastoralism. Pastoralist live their lives around livestock and they traditionally use all the products from the livestock including the milk. The link between lower incidence of lactose intolerance in people of European decent comes from an adaptation that has allowed some people of European decent to continue to produce lactase to fit this pastoralist model. Whether you were lactose intolerant or not would depend greatly on where your ancestors are from if you are of European decent because not all Europeans were pastoralist (and mind you this goes back 100s of years so it would be easier to be tested for lactose intolerance than to get out the family tree and trace it back to the 1600 or 1700s).

  14. Crys T Says:

    I don’t know that this information is up-to-date, but when I studied biology in high school (waaaaay back in the late 1970’s), we were told that the ability to digest lactose past around 5 – 7 years of age depends mostly on a genetic mutation that is more widespread in European, South Asian and Near Eastern ethnic groups.

    Has anyone else been told that?

  15. I am so wise Says:

    “It is clear that the “lactose intolerant” are not so much the odd man out, who is afflicted with a horrible disease, but instead someone with a normally functioning digestive system.”

    Given how rapidly it has spread through the human genome, it seems being lactose tolerant is pretty normal and a useful adaptation. I like it.


    The true beauty of natural selection and Darwin’s theory is that as an universal acid(Props to Daniel Dennett for that description) , it eats away the ill-informed ideas be they religious or secular and without regard to political correctness, ideology, heartfelt beliefs, or the babblings of science studies proponents.

  16. warwak Says:

    FTC, Schools, and the Dairy Industry Partner to Prey on Children of Color

    Milk industry associations promote milk consumption in schools through branded refrigeration equipment, cafeteria posters, and in-class supplies. In California high schools, one milk board promoted the “Got Milk? Gravity Tour,” an extreme sports tour sponsored in association with the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Another milk marketer distributed its celebrity milk mustache (“Got Milk?”) posters for display in school cafeterias. In addition, it sent to schools large (“truck sized”) posters, static clings, and banners in connection with its teen-directed promotional campaign. School posters also supported the campaign’s online auction, which featured various items likely to appeal to teenagers. The milk marketer made side panel art – featuring animated teen characters playing the guitar or sports, drinking milk, or cheerleading – available to milk processors for use on small containers for sale in schools. In addition, it advertised its SAMMY (“Scholar Athlete Milk Mustache of the Year”) scholarship award in high schools.

    The dairy industry has distributed educational materials to schools about nutrition, fitness, wellness, and other aspects of child or teen development; often, these materials were branded or promoted particular products or nutritional icon programs. Educational materials were sometimes accompanied by premiums, such as branded pencils, posters, activity sheets, or soccer balls.

    Milk marketers examined the appeal of certain media and the potential success of advertising initiatives (e.g., cross-promotions and licensed characters) among Hispanic, African-American, and Asian segments of the population, and among grade school boys as compared to girls. Media guidelines submitted by one company noted particular media buying techniques to attract African-American and Hispanic consumers as compared to the general consumer market, and research submitted by another company indicated that ads with a strong national market also perform well among Hispanics. Some research took note that product promotions involving certain licensed characters have higher awareness or performance ratings among Hispanics and African Americans than do other promotions.

    Market research also examined the relative performance of television commercials, cross-promotions, other advertising campaigns, and promotional concepts among girls versus boys, observing certain themes, images, characters, modes of participation, and prizes with particular gender appeal. In addition, research from milk marketers examined issues such as milk consumption and motivation to eat breakfast among adolescent girls, and milk consumption among Hispanics and African Americans, indicating, for example, relative levels of milk consumption in school districts with higher proportions of Hispanic and African-American students.

    One milk marketer reported gender-focused celebrity print advertising directed to either girls or boys, with higher expenditures for boy-targeted advertising, apparently due to the higher cost of media required to reach that audience.

    Milk marketers have partnered with government bodies, media companies, non-profit organizations, and other entities to promote nutrition and physical activities for children and teens. One sickening example of collaboration: The FTC’s partnering with the American Dairy Association’s “Got Milk” campaign and the “3-A-Day” dairy program. The Dairy Industry even has a campaign that aims to increase consumption of milk by teens that includes a teen-targeted interactive website, milk-mustache celebrity endorsements, and in-school posters.

    The FTC notes that although their initiatives require participants to “reduce” their use of licensed characters in advertising directed to children, most participants have pledged to use such characters only in child-directed advertising that promotes healthy dietary choices; however, seeing as the FTC believes milk to be a healthy dietary choice, not much will change, especially the continued use of our tax payer money to–subsidize Factory Farming–promote our government’s (USDA, FDA, FTC, …) partnership with the Dairy Industry’s efforts to set children up for a lifetime of illnesses.

    Hundreds of thousands of schools across America only receive reimbursement from the National School Lunch Program when they push milk and life-size Milk Mustache and “Body By Milk” posters adorn their lunchroom walls.

    This is the same NSL program that served-up 143 million pounds– at risk for mad cow disease–of downer dairy cows to children as documented in the January recall of “beef” supplied by Westland Hallmark who won awards as the #2 supplier to the school lunch program.

    “The consumption of dairy, especially at the younger ages, is a problem,” said Campbell which includes health consequences like higher risks of prostate, uterine, breast and endometrial cancers, osteoporosis and a “threefold higher risk of colon cancer.”

    Yet the pro dairy message on the school posters–which feature sports figures and popular musicians and arrive unsolicited from the National Dairy Council–is misleading and harmful testified Dr. T. Colin Campbell on the basis of decades of his National Institutes of Health-funded research.

  17. Alicia Says:

    Wow great info Warwak!!! Thanks.

  18. Completely agree!
    More of us should start to argue that lactose intolerance is perfectly natural while consuming dairy isn’t.

  19. Grownupnai Says:

    Apoc NYC is doing a zine on Decolonizing our diets. Can someone please post the ad to the blog. There are so many amazing minds and writers that pass through here. I’d also really like the opportunity to write for this blog. What’s the process?

  20. […] Boyle, M. A., & Long, S. (2007). Personal Nutrition(6th Edition ed.). Belmont, CA, USA: Thomson Wadsworth.   Comments (19) […]

  21. Jumakae Says:

    I was also reading about the natural vitamins we receive from the sun – vitamin D specifically. People with darker melanin get better nutrition from natural sunlight (without getting as burned) while those with less melanin drink milk to get what their bodies are missing out on. ..

    Here’s an interesting article:

  22. Dhaval Mehta Says:

    There are so many misconceptions about lactose and veganism. I just interviewed (podcast) Gene Baur for my podcast and he talks a lot about how people often think that going vegan or vegetarian means automatically giving up on nutrients and a healthy lifestyle.

    Doctors are not the answer to everything. They come to conclusions based on several tests and trials. So, continuing to experiment is the best way to come to the right answers as to how your body is unique.

  23. Alicia Says:

    Hey Jumakae thanks for the article link. Actually, what many people don’t realize is that Milk is fortified with vitamin D and vitamin A. So if you are looking to supplement your diet with Vitamin D you might as well get your vitamin D the same way that cow’s do, with vitamin supplements. A lot of Orange juices that are fortified with calcium are also now fortified with vitamin D as well.

  24. […] irritable stomach/bowl issues, I have finally decided this weekend that I can no longer eat diary. Latin@s shouldn’t be eating dairy much anyway, but hell, I grew up in the 70’s and what the hell did anybody know about eating well? I […]

  25. Bonnie Says:

    I always thought that the sight of a grown man drinking a glass of milk was repulsive to me. Now that I am a vegan, I understand why: that milk is made for babies, specifically baby cows, and a grown man drinking baby food is thoroughly gross. At least, to this woman!

    I also want to underline the CRUELTY inherent in milk production; the abduction of the baby from its mother and subsequent torture of the male baby to make veal.

    Milk: who needs it? Not people, that’s for sure.

    Thanks for the great post.

  26. bob Says:

    what number is the (why Europeans have a lower rate)section? I need this information for some homework.

  27. Padrons Says:

    I think we should be able to drink milk, and I do not believe that it is unnatural for us to drink another animal’s milk. It tastes great and has Vitamin D. Is this really such a huge controversial issue??

  28. C Says:

    1)Cow’s milk is fortified with vitamin D.

    2)It’s racist (“huge controversial issue”) when the US government is recommending and actively encouraging cow’s milk consumption, especially among school children, when mainly only white folks can consume it without getting sick.

    3) It’s unnecessary to consume because humans have NO nutritional requirement for it (and casein –milk protein– has been identified as a carcinogen), so therefore constantly forcefully impregnating millions of cows per year and taking their babies from them, just so we can enjoy their reproductive secretions, is totally unjustifiable.

    • Alicia Says:

      C I think you must be in my head, this is exactly what I was about to say. Additionally, I’ve noticed that when people make arguments for consuming milk and milk products especially they use the words “feel”, “I think”, and “I believe” a lot of the times to justify their consumption. There is no speculation, feeling, or belief needed to see that it is scientifically unnecessary for any mammal to consume milk after weaning especially not the milk of another species.

      The fact is that the majority of the people in the world are not lactose persistent and it is irresponsible to promote the consumption of milk when it causes more harm than good to the majority of the world’s population.

  29. Angie Long Says:

    Hi. I’ve only been a vegan for a year. The best choice I ever made. I enjoyed your writing. The thought of milk, meat, eggs and cheese are repulsive to me now. Besides, what happened to fruits, grains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds? Since I broke up with cheese; I have never felt better.
    It’s the government and the greed for money. If people actually looked at the ingredients of what they were eating they would not be able to pronounce any of the words, much less tell you what they mean!

  30. Anonymous Says:

    While I am an unapologetically Caucasian and lactose enthusiast, I find your article to informative and entertaining and well written.. As a repeated attempted lacto-ovo vegetarian I truly appreciate your efforts.

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