Did the festive cheeseboard leave you feeling a little worse for wear last Christmas? Do you say “boo!” to gruyere and steer clear of paneer in order to not feel unwell? It could be that you have an intolerance to cheese – or could it?
What is cheese intolerance?
First things first, we should probably clear something up; there’s actually no such thing as just a cheese intolerance. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t feel unwell after eating cheese – just that it isn’t the cheese itself that’s triggering this.
If you think that cheese is making you feel poorly, it’s probably actually dairy or milk that’s the culprit. More specifically, an allergy or intolerance to cow’s milk is probably one of the main reasons why a person might feel ill after eating cheese. In fact, there’s no real difference between supposed cheese intolerance and a dairy intolerance; if you’re intolerant to cheese, you’ll be intolerant to dairy too.
To complicate things even further, intolerances to dairy and milk aren’t so clear cut either. It could be that you’re intolerant to the lactose sugars in the milk, proteins like casein or whey, or even a combination of all these.
How can I tell what in cheese is making me feel ill?
If you think you’re intolerant to something in cheese, but can’t put your finger on what, there are a number of things you could consider.
If you find that eating any cheese makes you feel ill, dairy intolerance is likely to be the trigger. Specifically, intolerance to milk proteins like casein and whey might be the source of your symptoms. Casein is a protein naturally present in curd, the part of milk responsible for turning it from liquid to solid in the cheese making process. When those with milk intolerance eat cheese, proteins like casein are identified by the body as harmful, which triggers an immune system response. This in turn results in many of the symptoms commonly associated with cheese or dairy intolerance, like bloating, stomach pains, and “brain fog”.
However, if you find yourself feeling ill after eating certain types of cheese but fine after others, lactose might be your problem. That’s because during the process of making milk into cheese, lactose is partially broken down. Whilst “fresh” or unaged cheeses like feta or mozzarella still contain relatively large amounts of lactose, older and harder cheeses like parmesan or cheddar lose much of their lactose content in the ageing process. That means that depending on the severity of the lactose intolerance, these “older” cheeses might be safe to eat.
However, it’s important to note that you shouldn’t try second guess any intolerance yourself. If you think cheese might not be agreeing with you, then it’s worthwhile looking into taking an intolerance test, like our Food&DrinkScan programme. Whilst this test can’t identify lactose intolerance, it does test for intolerances to cow’s milk and milk proteins like casein, and can help you work out whether cheese really is a potential problem food for you.
What are ‘cheese intolerance’ symptoms?
As we’ve established, the name “cheese intolerance” is a little misleading – if you think you feel ill after eating cheese then it’s likely that these symptoms will have been brought on by an intolerance or allergy to dairy. As such, “cheese intolerance” symptoms are the same as dairy intolerance symptoms, and include:
- Stomach pain
- Diarrhoea or loose stools
- Brain fog
Alongside this, cheese is a high FODMAP food; types of sugars and carbohydrates that the small intestine finds difficult to break down and absorb. Whilst many people have little trouble eating foods that are high in FODMAPs, they can be particularly troublesome for sufferers of irritable bowel syndrome. That means that if you have IBS, eating cheese could trigger a flare up, or make one worse.
What should I do if I think cheese is making me feel unwell?
As with any food, if you think that you’re reacting badly after eating cheese then it’s a good idea to seek outside help. It can be tempting to simply try cut out potential problem foods from your diet altogether, but this won’t be addressing the problem at its heart. This is especially the case with cheese; where if it turns out that it is acting as a trigger for symptoms of intolerance, it’s very likely that other dairy based foods will be too.
If you’ve already ruled out problems like lactose intolerance or allergies, a food intolerance test is a better way to get to the bottom of any potential sensitivity to cheese. By testing for intolerance to cow’s milk, you can find out whether it really is cheese that’s making you feel ill, or something else.