More options now for people who can’t tolerate milk

Restaurants and supermarkets throughout the Bay Area are beginning to get milk — alternatives, that is.

Here in the land of soy milk and organic honey, a confluence of food movements is indirectly benefiting those with lactose intolerance: The vegan movement, the spread of Mediterranean and Pacific Rim cuisine, health consciousness and changing demographics have all contributed to greater choice for the delicate of digestion.

Until recently, saying no to dairy — specifically, the milk sugar, lactose — wasn’t easy in a country where milk has its own public relations board and in a state with happy cows. But for those whose stomachs churn at dairy, there is no sour cream in burritos, no Parmesan grated on pasta and no whipped cream on apple pie. In fact, there’s no pie at all if the crust is made with butter instead of lard.

According to the National Institutes of Health, as many as 50 million Americans suffer from symptoms of lactose intolerance. It occurs predominantly among Latinos, American Indians, blacks and Asian-Americans. Up to 75 percent of blacks and 90 percent of Asian-Americans suffer from lactose intolerance. With those numbers, the Bay Area is something of a gurgling epicenter.

Still, many have trouble recognizing their symptoms. Bart Hosmer, chef at Santa Clara’s Parcel 104, finally connected his stomach upsets to lactose intolerance after his last encounter with ice cream two or three years ago in Chicago.

”I shy away from milk because it tears me apart,” says Hosmer, who has since cut back on dairy products.

The distress, as scientists delicately call it, arises from an absence of lactase, the enzyme that processes the sugar in milk. The undigested lactose makes its way unscathed into the digestive system, where it meets up with bacteria and begins to ferment and produce gas, causing symptoms that range from cramps and bloating to nausea and diarrhea.

For years, the only way to cope was to avoid dairy or pop pills. But food manufacturers and restaurants — partly to appeal to a changing ethnic population — have begun to cater to lactose-intolerant appetites.

”Ten years ago, there were virtually no products available and today there are whole product lines,” notes Ken Zane, who runs No-Dairy.com, a Connecticut based site for lactose-free products.

Starbucks brews a grande with soy. Clif Bars makes an energy bar without lactose. During the holidays, International Delight released a canela non-dairy creamer, designed to appeal to Latino shoppers 40 and over.

Imagine Foods in San Carlos, which makes soy and rice milk, recently added lines of non-dairy broths, frozen desserts and energy drinks. nSpired Natural Foods of San Leandro sells the AH!LASKA brand of non-dairy syrups and bakers cocoa. And last spring, Breyers launched a vanilla ice cream with added lactase. (Reminiscent of ice milk, it is available in the Bay Area at Nob Hill and Cala Foods.)

Though many of these products have appeared in the past three years, the Bay Area has long been a haven for all manner of diets, allergies and food choices.

Asian groceries and restaurants — with their non-dairy offerings — have been fixtures on the Pacific Coast since 1965, when restrictions on Asian migration were lifted and the population boomed. Now, with the fusion craze, spring rolls have joined peanuts and onion rings as bar fare, while seared ahi has become as common as tuna melts.

The migration of Mediterranean foods, coupled with concern about fat content and health, has also lightened fare. Moreover, the Bay Area’s thriving vegan movement upholds a political sensitivity to dairy as a case of animal rights. The movement has made soy such a staple that the Los Angeles Times dubbed Santa Cruz the birthplace of the soy latte.

”I grew up in Santa Cruz,” says Dr. Amy Lanou, nutrition director for the Washington, D.C.-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. ”That area has been ahead of the rest of the country. I remember even in high school pizza with no cheese or with soy cheese.”

Lanou is working to persuade Congress to allow non-dairy options in school lunches. The Physicians Committee last fall filed a petition with the Department of Agriculture protesting a school lunch policy that reimburses schools for cow’s milk but not other calcium-rich beverage substitutes, except in cases of medical need. Congress will review recommendations for changes when it reauthorizes money for the national school lunch program later this year.

Restaurants also are catching on.

In the past, special requests were not as frequent, says Parcel 104’s Hosmer. ”You came to the restaurant. That was the food being made, and that’s what you ate.”

These days, diners are more willing to make their preferences known.

”Guests are saying, ‘I want to eat your food and spend my money there. I just can’t eat that.’ Now there’s a better understanding for both parties,” Hosmer says.

At Greens, the renowned vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco, executive chef Annie Somerville says chefs try to accommodate diners who prefer to avoid dairy, whether they’re vegan or lactose intolerant.

At San Jose’s La Foret, owner-chef John Davoudi says he varies options to satisfy repeat customers — balsamic vinegar and olive oil one day, sherry vinegar and oil the next.

”It’s very easy to do a lot of dishes without cream or butter or all of this stuff,” Davoudi says. He knows first-hand that lactose intolerance doesn’t necessarily appear at childhood. By adulthood, some can only digest one-tenth of what they could as babies.

”I am a primary example of that,” Davoudi says. ”My favorite dessert used to be cheese, fruit and a nice glass of red wine — I love cheese, but I can’t eat the way I used to when I was younger.”

Vera H-C Chan is an Oakland freelance writer. Contact her at food@sjmercury.com

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