Why do dairy products in Europe seem to cause less indigestion?

AAbout 30 million American adults have some degree of lactose intolerance by age 20, so it’s no surprise that popular TikTok hashtags like #dairyfreerecipes and #dairyfreetips have amassed more than 80 million views combined. But amidst the dairy-free conversation, a new trend has emerged on social media, one in which more and more people are sharing how they can tolerate European-made dairy products that would normally lead to unfavorable symptoms if consumed in the United States.

There are a few theories as to why this is so, with the main one blaming the difference in the food supply chain in the US compared to Europe as the main culprit. While it is true that both countries have different approaches to food management, specifically dairy, experts have explained that this is simply due to differences in risk management. Additionally, there is a lack of scientific evidence validating this to be true when it comes to dairy sensitivity, despite several personal experiences you may have heard from friends (or people you follow on social media).

So if banned ingredients and differences in the food supply chain are not in play, why do so many people claim to tolerate dairy much better in Europe than at home? We sat down with a registered dietitian who specializes in helping people with digestive disorders and dairy sensitivities, as well as a food scientist to get some answers.

Why Dairy May Cause Digestive Discomfort

Before explaining why dairy sensitivity can vary, it’s important to know what can trigger an upset stomach or sudden trips to the bathroom. “The main reason dairy can cause digestive problems is lactose intolerance, [which is when] the body doesn’t make enough lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose, which is the main carbohydrate in milk,” says Erin Judge, RDN, LDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of Gutivate, a nutritional counseling practice for digestive disorders. “Poor lactose breakdown can lead to symptoms like gas, bloating, cramps, pain, or diarrhea, but it can vary from person to person.”

Judge also points out how it’s also possible to have an allergy-like response to proteins in dairy, which can lead to red skin, rashes, and more, in addition to uncomfortable digestive symptoms.

How Europe’s Dairy Products Are Different From American Dairy Products

Among the many social posts about this trend, there has been a lot of focus on the differences in dairy and whether or not this is the cause of changes in dairy sensitivity. For one thing, you can see dairy products on grocery store shelves compared to the refrigerated section in the United States. The reason for this is due to the methods of pasteurizing milk. “Milk is pasteurized through a process called ultra-high temperature (UHT) in Europe, which kills bacteria and can lead to a longer shelf-life product without refrigeration,” explains Natalie Alibrandi, a food scientist based at the UK and CEO of Nali Consulting. The United States, on the other hand, follows a different method called high temperature, short time (HTST), which Alibrandi says kills most bacteria in dairy products, but still requires refrigeration. Despite the differences in pasteurization methods, the lactose content is the same for HTST and UHT milk.

Another notable difference between milk in the United States and Europe (one of which is known to cause controversy) is the authorization of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rGBH) that some believe may negatively affect humans. The main reason is due to the fact that Europe has banned the use of rBGH, while the United States has not. “RBGH has been approved by the FDA since 1993, however it has been banned in the EU since 1990,” says Alibrandi. The EU’s concern about the use of rGBH is the known increase in the hormone IGF-1 which can cause cells to grow, which some believe is linked to prostate cancer, breast cancer and colorectal cancer, but the evidence of potential harm to humans is inconclusive.

It is also important to note that 90 percent of rBGH is destroyed during pasteurization and even more can be destroyed during cooking processes. So while the use of rGBH may be of concern to some, there have been no discernible effects in humans when it comes to dairy sensitivities when consumed via milk.

Why your sensitivity to dairy may change in Europe, according to an expert

So now that we’ve mentioned how European dairy products differ from American ones, and how these differences probably don’t contribute to the change in sensitivity to dairy, you may be wondering what’s at stake.

For starters, it’s important to remember that dairy products can contain different levels of lactose content, depending on the fat level of the food. “Whole milk may be lower in lactose than low-fat dairy options, so the lactose load may be more tolerable,” says Alibrandi. “Lactose-free milk is the only lactose-free milk. This type of milk adds the enzyme lactase to break down lactose.” Restaurants can vary in the type of dairy products used for different dishes, which may affect you differently, depending on your lactose intolerance.

Judge points out that there are other factors that have nothing to do with the lactose content that may also be at play. “Other reasons for higher tolerance elsewhere are due to other factors that contribute to digestive upset, including other ingredients in dairy products, portion sizes, movement or lack of movement, and stress levels,” says Judge.

On the movement note, trips to Europe may require more walking to get around rather than driving a car, which can increase your movement levels on a trip and ultimately help with overall digestion. While walking more may not seem like the biggest difference, one study found that more than a third of Americans would rather drive than walk for five minutes. The extra steps you wouldn’t normally take can help break down food for your body to use, especially if you walk right after a meal.

Another contributing factor that can lead to better dairy tolerance is your stress levels, which can be easily overlooked. In most cases, Europe travel acts as a vacation that allows you to get away from activities and environments currently associated with stress and anxiety. Stress reduction can not only benefit your mental health, but also your digestive health. “I find that many people are more relaxed and have less stress during the holidays, as they are not working anywhere near their usual stressors, and this would improve overall digestion, even with foods that are generally not well tolerated,” Judge says. . Eating ice cream while shopping or sightseeing sounds pretty relaxing, right?

According to the 2020 Stress in America survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA), more than three in four adults (77 percent) say that our nation’s future is a major source of stress (which has increased significantly since 2019). when 66 percent of adults said the same). It’s no wonder that being in a new environment, especially one we’re excited to be in, can lead to a higher tolerance for ingredients that normally wreak havoc.

The bottom line

While there is still no clear answer as to why so many people report changes in dairy sensitivity when traveling, it is important to consider the various factors that can affect our digestion. So, Judge suggests paying attention to the big picture when you’re on vacation, like your stress levels, body movement levels, and lactose levels in dairy products. That way, it’s easier to determine what factors may be influencing how your body reacts to dairy, regardless of where you are.

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