Can you eat cheese on a low FODMAP diet?

“Wait what? I can eat cheese on a low FODMAP diet?” People are surprised to hear that cheese can be included in the elimination phase of the low FODMAP diet. Yes, some cheeses are low in FODMAPs and can be a part of your balanced diet.

Cheese belongs to a dairy food group and contains lactose. Some people cannot tolerate lactose due to deficiency in lactase enzyme, which breaks down lactose molecule into smaller units for absorption.  When lactose is not digested, it travels to the colon where bacteria ferment it and produce gas causing the intestines to distend. People with IBS may experience bloating which can be painful and uncomfortable. Undigested lactose can also pull extra water into the intestines resulting in diarrhea.

Many of my clients tell me that they have tried lactose-free diet with not luck. Not all people with IBS should avoid lactose products. You should restrict lactose only if you are lactose intolerant. Low FODMAP diet eliminates lactose, but the good news is that it is not a lactose-free diet, small amounts of lactose are allowed.

Monash University sets the cut-off values for lactose tolerance at which most people experience unpleasant symptoms. This cut-off value is 1g of lactose per serving. What is good that many cheeses contain only traces of lactose and can be eaten on a low FODMAP diet.  During cheese making process most of the lactose is transformed into lactic acid when the starter cultures are added to milk; this gives a sour flavor to cheeses. Then, curd and whey are separated, and most lactose is drained off with whey. Further, the cutting of the curd determines if cheese is soft or firm. The smaller the curd is cut, the firmer the cheese is, and the more whey and lactose are drained off. This is why softer cheeses contain greater amount of lactose.   

Monash University lists many cheeses that are safe to eat without adverse reactions. These cheeses are low in lactose at 40g or 1.5oz:

  • Brie cheese
  • Camembert cheese
  • Cheddar cheese
  • Comte cheese
  • Colby style cheese
  • Feta cheese
  • Gruyere cheese
  • Havarti cheese
  • Manchego cheese
  • Monterey Jack cheese
  • Mozzarella cheese
  • Pecorino style cheese
  • Swiss cheese

What if you want to eat a greater amount of cheese? What if a certain cheese is not listed in the Monash App? Lactose is a carbohydrate, which should be listed on the nutrition facts label. Cheese doesn’t have any other carbohydrates except lactose, so whatever amount is listed for carbohydrates on the food label will determine the amount of lactose in cheese.   For example, you found a cheese that lists a serving size as 1oz. (Note: serving size can be different between manufacturers).  If this cheese contains 0.5g of carbohydrates in 1 serving, it means it has 0.5g of lactose per 1oz. As I mentioned earlier most people will not experience GI symptoms if they eat less than 1g (cut-off value) of lactose. So, you can probably eat 2 servings of this cheese, which is 2oz, without having bad symptoms.

Hard part is eating cheese that doesn’t have a food label, such as the one made by your local farmer.  In this case I would recommend avoiding it or testing your tolerance level since we don’t know the amount of lactose present.

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