Gluten-Free and Dairy-Free: What’s the Connection?

Avoiding gluten (a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye) is a given following a new celiac diagnosis. It’s the only way to deal with a condition that, left untreated, can lead to serious health consequences. Unfortunately, if the disease has progressed unnoticed for some time, there’s another dietary restriction new patients might have to deal with while giving their gut time to heal — dairy.

Lactose intolerance sometimes develops in those with untreated celiac due to the damage the condition inflicts on the lining of the small intestine. So, not only must the newly diagnosed give up bread and other gluten-containing foods, but they also need to avoid ice cream, milk, cheese, butter and more — at least for a little while.

According to Amy Keller, MS, RDN, LD, a dietitian, celiac support group leader and regular contributor to Gluten-Free Living, lactose intolerance may be temporary. The gut needs time to heal while a patient follows a strict gluten-free diet.

“A new celiac diagnosis indicates that there is damage to your small intestinal villi. These villi have many functions related to the absorption of nutrients, and they also house our lactase enzyme,” she wrote in a recent column for Gluten-Free Living. “Continuing on your gluten-free diet will help heal these villi, and the lactase enzyme should become more readily available over time.”

Keller notes that there are different degrees of lactose intolerance, and some people might find they can eat small amounts of dairy with no problems.

“If tolerated, lower-lactose dairy products, such as aged cheeses (cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan), cream cheese, half-and-half and sour cream, can be enjoyed,” she says. “Furthermore, plant-based milk such as almond or soy milk can be a good alternative.”

A celiac diagnosis is never welcome, but there is good news for those with allergies and sensitivities, as major companies have started offering plant-based versions of foods that are off-limits.

Earlier this year, Upfield, the parent company of Country Crock, launched its own line of plant-based butter. The goal, says Tom Wajda, Upfield’s Head of Research & Development for North America, was to craft a spread indistinguishable from regular butter. The company launched the new line in March. It’s been rolling out to stores across the country since.

“We specifically formulated a product that would taste, cook and bake just like butter,” Wajda told Gluten-Free Living. “We’ve done a lot of work analyzing butter flavors at the molecular level to understand the composition of butter flavor…I’ve developed and tasted a lot of spreads and products, and many of them are tasty, but I can tell you none of those tasted and acted just like butter.”

Simply called Plant Butter, the new offering is made with plant-based oils, including those from avocados, almonds and olives. Wajda said Country Crock’s plant butter has 25 percent less saturated fat than dairy butter. Also, he said there’s an added environmental benefit by switching.

“We’ve done a detailed analysis, and the carbon emissions used to make plant butter are roughly half of what they are from making dairy butter,” said Wajda. If the country made the switch from dairy butter to plant butter, it would be the equivalent of removing 1.3 million cars from the road,” he said.

Overall, there are more dairy-free and gluten-free options available now than ever before, and a celiac or lactose intolerance diagnosis may not mean saying goodbye to favorite foods. Even though the ingredients may be different, you just might find they’re better for you — and, perhaps, better for the environment.

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