Various products in the supermarket, such as skim milk, whole milk, ice cream, butter, and whipping cream are labelled as "lactose-free". Are these products appropriate to serve to a vegan? What is the difference between lactose-free and dairy-free?
No, lactose-free milk is not vegan.
Lactose-free is regular dairy milk (typically cow's milk) with lactase enzyme added to it. In terms of animal wellbeing and environmental impact it's identical to regular milk.
Let's break it down further:
- LactOSE is a kind of sugar, technically a disaccharide combination of glucose (the most basic sugar) and galactose (a kind of sugar mainly found in milk products).
- LactASE is an enzyme that helps break down lactOSE into the separate digestible components. All mammals produce lactase enzyme during infancy in order to digest mother's milk, but most lose that ability after a period of time. Humans are relatively unique in that some humans (mostly of European descent) have evolved a gene that causes us to continue producing lactase through adulthood, which is why some people can drink mammalian milk through adulthood.
So lactose-free milk is just regular cow's milk with one extra ingredient that makes it digestible for humans who would otherwise be unable to digest it. Lactose-free milk actually still contains lactose, contrary to popular belief.
Fun fact: All cats are lactose-intolerant! They don't have the gene that causes lactase persistence. That's why cats get sick from drinking milk that didn't come from their mother.