CHEESE FAQs, Ep. 1: How to Eat Cheese When You’re Lactose Intolerant

My plan to use this blog to answer common cheese questions and address the concerns of average cheese consumers has, uh, faced some competition from posts in the category of “omg lookie this cheese I cheesed today!!!” To that I say, it’s my party and I’ll cut the cheese if I want to.

But seriously, I still want to do the thing I wanted to do before. And I don’t have to be at the shop tomorrow, so I can stay up late drinking Dickel 12 in bed and typing. This post covers a concern I hear nearly daily: “I love cheese, but I’m lactose intolerant!” And the related question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” I’ll offer a few words of advice*.

  1. Go for cheeses that contain little or no lactose. They’re not as hard to find as you might think. For one thing, most cheeses are made by separating the whey from the curds; when the whey is rinsed off, much of the milk’s lactose is removed along with it. Secondly, as cheeses age, lactose is broken down into lactic acid. Thus, fresh cheeses (cheeses that aren’t aged—e.g., mozzarella, ricotta, feta, and chevre) still contain quite a bit of lactose, but aged cheeses have very little lactose. And the more aged the cheese is, the less lactose remains, generally speaking. So, most naturally aged cheeses—even if they’re not aged for very long—contain little or no lactose. Cheeses that are aged for long periods are very safe bets. For example, Beemster XO gouda is aged for 26 months and contains no lactose at all. Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, Manchego, Jarlsberg, and aged cheddars are typically lactose-free or contain only trace levels of lactose.
  2. Look for a “lactose free” label. If you don’t find one, look at the nutrition information label. Lactose is milk sugar, so a cheese that’s high in sugar is high in lactose, while a cheese with little or no sugar is very low in lactose. The nutrition info label doesn’t list lactose, but it does list sugar, which in the case of cheese is basically the same thing.
  3. Consider your portion size. Most adults are at least mildly lactose intolerant. I certainly am! Some of us are more intolerant of lactose than others, but in any case, lactose intolerance is not an allergy—a little lactose isn’t going to send you to the ER or even to the bathroom in a hurry**. If you have Chron’s disease, it’s wise to avoid even trace amounts of gluten, but lactose intolerance doesn’t work like that. It’s more a matter of degree. You may find that you tolerate a little bit of lactose with no problem at all, a moderate amount with a bit of mild indigestion, and a lot with, well, let’s call it distress. Good cheese packs a wallop of flavor, so you may find that you can thoroughly enjoy a little bit of even a fresh cheese (relatively high lactose) without any trouble whatsoever. And frankly, a little bit is plenty anyway. And with low-lactose or lactose-free cheeses, you can pig out if you want.
  4. Know your condition. Are you sure that lactose is the problem? Or are you perhaps allergic to milk protein (casein)? If there’s an allergy to milk protein involved, then it doesn’t matter whether the cheese is low in lactose or not—it’s gonna mess you up***.
  5. If you’re eating a dish that contains cheese, you should know not only what kind of cheese is in it, but what other dairy products are included. If that big bowl of mac and cheese you want is made with aged cheddar, the cheese is probably fine for you as far as lactose goes—but your digestive system is still headed for chaos if it’s also full of cream or milk, or if you’re gobbling amounts of it appropriate only for a hot dog eating competition. If your lactose intolerance isn’t severe, you shouldn’t be worried about a bite of even a young cheese like brie****. But eating a large portion is obviously more risky.
  6. Stay away from the processed stuff. They’re not only unaged (high lactose), but they typically include added milk and/or whey (also high lactose).
  7. Consider non-dairy “cheeses,” I guess? If you must? A vegan friend tells me some of them are delicious. I’ve tried quite a few and ended up with McKayla Maroney-level chagrin on my face, but I might just have a bad attitude. The cashew- and almond-based cheeses aren’t the worst thing ever. Whatever you do, stay away from “imitation cheese” made with, I dunno, chalk and recycled chapstick or whatever they use. I’m not sure what loopholes they abuse to sell this as a food product, since it’s clearly more useful as a cheap construction material.
  8. Don’t get confused by all the bogus nutritional advice. I hear the results of misinformation every day. “I can only eat goat cheese because it doesn’t have lactose.” (Nope. Goat’s milk has slightly lower lactose than cow’s milk, but it’s more likely the difference in casein between cow and goat milk that’s making a difference in your digestion.) “I can only eat raw milk cheese because it doesn’t have lactose.” (Not exactly. If you’re eating raw milk cheese in the US, it’s going to be an aged cheese as required by law, so yeah, that helps. But raw milk has exactly the same amount of lactose as pasteurized milk, though there’s a decent argument that it’s easier to digest because it contains more lactase enzymes and probiotics.) “I only eat cheese from grass-fed cows because it has no lactose.” (No, I’m pretty sure calves would die of malnutrition if that were the case. But hey, grass-fed, pasture-raised animals make tastier, more nutritious cheese, so sure, let’s go with that.) I’m not a medical doctor or a dietitian, so it’s not my place to give medical advice. I try to help people find whatever it is they’re looking for, but I’m sometimes frustrated to hear these myths over and over again.
  9. Just, yeah, eat what you want and suffer the consequences*****. That’s what most of us do, isn’t it?

* I’m not a medical doctor. I mean, I’m a doctor, yeah, but not of the medical sort. I’m qualified to diagnose problems with prose, not problems with your guts, which I call “guts” because I’m not a medical doctor.

** I’m still not a medical doctor. I sell cheese. I’m biased. Go talk to your doctor, for chrissake.

*** You can tell I’m not a medical doctor because I just wrote “gonna mess you up.” Don’t take medical advice from me.

**** Not a medical doctor. Not a dietitian. Just a guy who thinks brie is delicious. I likely know more about cheese than your doc does, and your doc definitely knows more about health than I do, so perhaps you can learn something from both of us?

**** I don’t have malpractice insurance. Don’t listen to me!

Can I Afford Good Cheese?

If you can afford cheese, then HELL YES, you can afford good cheese. I say this as someone who literally can’t afford new shoes even though mine have holes in them. If you hear squishing sounds when I walk, that’s because mop water has saturated my socks. Still, I don’t have to set aside some kind of cheese savings account so I can one day splurge on a bite of Roquefort. Cheese is expensive, yes, but if you can afford the cheap stuff, which isn’t actually cheap, then you can afford the fancy, delicious stuff. In fact, if you do it right, it’s a bargain. Consider this:

  1. The best cheeses do indeed cost much more per pound than store-brand processed cheese. But they’re also typically very powerful cheeses, so you may not need very much. A cheesemonger can cut you a very small wedge of something extraordinary for the same price as that big hunk of flavorless, overpriced cheese you were going to buy anyway. So you end up spending the same amount, receiving less cheese, but having a much better experience. Think of it this way: if you’re going to spend five bucks on cheese, you can buy a lot of forgettable cheese or you can buy a little bit of something that will be a memorable delight.
  2. Cheap cheese isn’t necessarily a good bargain. It’s often overpriced, actually. When you buy a big plastic package of shredded jack or cheddar, you’re paying a lot for the convenience. I’d guess most of the cost goes toward the packaging and the premium for having it pre-shredded. Then it molds a few days after you open it up, right? And moldy shredded cheese is done for, unlike a block of firm cheese with a bit of mold on the edge which can be cut off. But you could pay a little more per pound for good cheese from your cheesemonger and know that your money is going toward actual cheese instead of packaging—just delicious, exciting cheese—that you can grate or shred at home in a matter of a couple minutes. Plus, you can shred only what you need and the rest of the block will last longer in the fridge. Ultimately, you can get better cheese at a better value that way—when you’re not paying for a factory to shred and package your cheese for you.
  3. Let me go a step further: just don’t buy shredded cheese. Ever. It’s over-priced, molds quickly, and is always dried out. I went to the grocery and found a block of Kraft sharp cheddar next to a package of Kraft shredded sharp cheddar. I couldn’t believe they were listed at the same price! But then I noticed the small print. The bag of shredded cheese included an ounce less of cheese. For good measure, I looked at the ingredients: the shredded option included an ingredients list even longer than the block did, full as it was of cornstarch and chemical mold inhibitors. You have to pay for those. Don’t. Unless you suffer from a physical disability that makes shredding cheese by hand difficult, just shred it yourself. It takes two minutes, and another minute to clean the grater. Hell, just call me and I’ll come over and shred it for you. (But you’ll have to feed me.)
  4. If you’re looking for an assortment of cheese for a cheese plate, buying big hunks of pre-packaged stuff is going to waste money and precious (or even not-so-precious) cheese! Buy smaller wedges of several amazing cheeses from your monger and you’ll have better cheese and less waste at a comparable price.
  5. As with wine and cars and so many products, it’s entirely possible to buy something of a high quality for a middling price. Your monger can sell you something amazing for $36/lb, but probably also has something just as amazing for $18/lb. Remember when you figured out that there’s an Australian wine you like that’s cheap and also really good? Same thing with cheese. Let a monger help you find something that you love but that’s also comfortably within your budget. The difference in taste between that and a cheap block of cheese from the grocery will be great, but the difference in price may be quite minimal.
  6. Don’t be overwhelmed by the per-pound price. You’re probably not buying a whole pound, right? If all you need is a quarter pound, check this out: the price difference between a quarter pound of a $30/lb cheese vs a $20/lb cheese is only $2.50. That’s not nothing, but if you want the fancy $30/lb cheese, that extra $2.50 is probably not going to bankrupt you. I can’t tell you how many customers in my shop look at the high price of our amazing salumi products and say, “Damn, is it made of diamonds? I can’t afford to buy food at $50/lb!” I totally get that, believe me. I’m a big fan of making entire meals for under three bucks, and no stranger to the fast food dollar menu. But in reality, what happens is customers buy a tenth of a pound because such strong flavors are best savored with just a few bites, and paper-thin slices mean that you might get twenty slices in that little 1/10th of a pound. The five-dollar price they pay at the register is well worth it. I certainly haven’t heard any complaints, but we have plenty of folks coming back for more. We pay five bucks for a good beer. Five bucks for great, memorable food shouldn’t be such a shock.
  7. Consider where your money is going. Is it supporting a corporation and corporate distributors, with very little of it paying the wages of local employees or food producers? Or is it directly supporting a small, local business and its local employees and artisan food-makers? Are staff at the store well-paid, or are the low prices made possible by extremely low wages? Is the low price of the cheese a reflection of cheap, inhumane, unsustainable factory farming techniques and underpaid farmers? Or is the cheese made by principled farmers and artisan cheese-makers using sustainable practices and healthy, humanely raised animals?
  8. Do the math. I took a trip to the grocery and found that a half-pound block of store-brand sharp cheddar (store brand—not even Kraft or Sargento) cost $2.50. Wow, that’s great, right?! An organic sharp white cheddar cost $4 for slightly less cheese (6 oz, packaged to look like the 8 oz blocks). If all you need for a dish you’re making is cheap processed cheddar, either of those are a good deal, I think, but I wouldn’t bother snacking on them. In contrast, I can sell you 6 oz of an amazing Hook’s 4 Year cheddar for less than $7. Yes, that’s a big difference in price. You could buy a whole pound of the store-brand cheddar for less than that, and it’s almost $3 more than the organic white cheddar at the grocery. If I were making a ho-hum mac and cheese for myself on a Tuesday night budget, I might very well go for the cheap stuff. But if I wanted to make an especially flavorful dish or if I wanted to snack on the cheese, I’d simply spend the extra three bucks to enjoy something special—something made by artisans and aged to perfection rather than hustled out of the factory as soon as possible. And if you think about it, three bucks is a small price to significantly upgrade your cheese. If you wanted to upgrade your wine, you might go from a ten-dollar bottle to a twenty-dollar bottle or a thirty-dollar bottle. There’s no shame in buying the less expensive option, and sometimes that may be the best choice, but you shouldn’t feel like it’s a great splurge to upgrade your cheese. It’s three bucks.
  9. Good cheeses are likely more nutrient-dense and easier to digest. Aged cheeses have already done a lot of the digestive work for you. They’ve already converted lactose to lactic acid, for example, which is good news for the lactose intolerant. And cheese made from the milk of grass-fed animals is much more nutritious than that produced at factory feedlots where animals are fed only grain. You can see the difference in color and can certainly taste it. Most quality creameries use milk that is either labeled as organic or made using organic practices (many farmers don’t want to pay for the certification even if they’re following organic practices). I’d argue that the price of cheese often reflects the nutrition provided therein. Good, real cheese is full of probiotics and micronutrients, and its proteins and sugars are easier to digest than those in quickly and poorly made factory cheeses.

I know very well that we can’t all afford the foods we want. But I’d argue in the case of cheese that if we can afford cheap cheese with little nutritional value, we may be quite wise to spring for buying less of a high-quality cheese with more nutritional value and more flavor.

But Do I Really Need a Cheesemonger?

Ok, Mark, you talk a lot about working with customers, and that sounds fun and all, but I don’t go grocery shopping for the kicks, sorry. I’m not trying to be entertained or to learn the history of Alpine cheese-making. I just want to buy some cheese, ok? What’s wrong with just picking up a vacuum-sealed pack of whatever’s in the supermarket aisle?

Not a damn thing, friend. And these days it’s not just cheap processed cheese in the grocery aisle—you can often find very good stuff at the supermarket. But a visit to your local cheesemonger, even just on occasion, may inform your regular grocery shopping and might make even your workaday cheese habits more pleasant. (Seriously, ask me how to make your cheap cheese snack awesomer. I’ll tell you.) Here’s what a good cheesemonger can do for you that the grocery store typically can’t:

  • Cut cheese to order. Does anyone in the grocery aisle ask if you’d like a bigger or smaller wedge than the one on sale? A monger can sell you just about any size you want AND help you decide how much you need. Whether your recipe calls for 6 oz or 1.5 lbs—or you’re trying to figure out how much to serve for eight guests—your friendly neighborhood monger has you covered. Oh, and you know that mini-wheel of soft-ripened cheese that looked so good in the grocery aisle, but you didn’t buy it because it’s expensive and probably more cheese than you want, and there’s no way to know what it tastes like or how ripe it really is? Well, I might have the same cheese or something similar—and I might be able to sell you a half or partial wheel and even give you a taste. Not a bad deal, eh?
  • Provide fresh cuts straight from the wheel. You may have noticed that those vacuum-sealed blocks of cheese in the grocery aisle are a bit slimy when you open them up. They might even taste a little plasticky around the edges. There’s no telling how long they’ve been sitting on the shelf. But I can cut a fresh wedge from a loaf or a wheel just for you. I can tell you when that wheel was first cut and sometimes even when it was produced. I’ve been caring for that wheel since it arrived at the shop.
  • Provide cheese that’s been well maintained. A monger cares for his or her cheese like a shepherd tends to sheep. Our cheese wheels don’t just sit around on a shelf unmonitored. We clean them, face them, wrap and re-wrap, monitor temperatures, and check regularly for off-notes in flavor and aroma. We taste each wheel and can tell you if this one’s a little riper than the last batch or perhaps has a slightly different flavor. Maybe this wheel was produced in spring rather than fall and therefore has a richer taste.
  • Provide samples! For some crazy reason, the grocery store doesn’t let you open up blocks of cheese for a taste. How do you know whether you like this brand of cheddar or that other one? Buy them both? Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could taste and compare and share a sliver with your significant other to see what they think before you buy? Well, there’s a magical land where this actually happens. It’s my cheese counter (and the cheese counter of most any monger). Brang it!
  • Provide knowledge. Freely and with pleasure! We mongers pride ourselves on knowing our stuff. Maybe too much so—seriously, don’t get me started on the differences in rennet unless you don’t have anywhere to be for a while and are prepared to take notes. But when we can somehow control ourselves from bursting into over-animated, long-winded, esoteric cheese-nerd lectures (I keep a muzzle behind the counter I case I have to shut myself up), we can answer your questions and guide you to exactly what you need. Maybe you’re not sure which cheeses are suitable for vegetarians. Or which use raw milk and when/why that matters (or doesn’t). Or which brie will be mildest or softest or the most mushroomy. Or what would go well with the pinot noir you already picked out. Or how to serve raclette. Or you want to know why this cheese has crunchy bits and that one’s kind of runny. Or maybe you had that one cheese that one time in Spain six years ago and you’re not sure what it was but it kinda looked like a fuzzy gray football, or did it?, and you want to find out what the hell that might have been? (Spoiler alert: I’m guessing it was garrotxa and I don’t have it, but I might know where you can find it). Or maybe all you know is that you like parm and you wanna see what else is like that. Time to talk to your cheesemonger. The slackjawed wire-shelved coolers of the dairy aisle can’t help you.

So I really do think that if you love cheese, building a relationship with your local monger can make an enormous difference. But I also believe that there’s good cheese in supermarkets and if what’s offered there meets your needs for a given occasion, have at it. Perhaps in another post I’ll even offer some tips for buying cheese at the supermarket. I mean, quick confession here—I buy cheese at the supermarket sometimes, too! I’d even argue that processed American cheese has its place in the world and deserves some credit. I recently tried a major brand’s version of provolone and thought it was pretty damn good despite fake smoke flavor. But it would be a shame to limit ourselves to the same old pre-packed blocks or slices every day. So, at least for special occasions, go chat up your monger and see what’s good. There’s a difference, after all, between good cheese and mind-blowingly good cheese.

That’s me being super scary and intimidating. #Don’tFearTheMonger (Photo: Katharine Azzolini)


Greetings from your friendly neighborhood cheesemonger! My superpowers are few (less than one, if we’re honest), but if a guy who obsessively learns about cheese for fun, shares that knowledge for free, passes out samples of cheese all day, and then sells you all the beautiful milk products your heart desires isn’t your idea of a hero, you can go eat a fishstick.

I’m basically a white hat drug dealer. I sell small amounts of powerful products that make customers’ brains buzz with dopamine (via casomorphins—yes, caso, like queso).  I don’t pressure anyone to buy, but I sure as hell follow the classic “first taste is free” sales model. The response is often something along the lines of “thanks, but I don’t need any chee… OMG SELL ME ALL OF THAT IMMEDIATELY AND CALL ME WHEN YOU GET MORE IN STOCK!” Customers do that thing where the deliciousness is so overwhelming that they kind of squat down and rock as their eyes bulge. In public.

I work in Nashville, Tennessee at the beloved Porter Road Butcher shop, but I’ve decided to share my admittedly limited and potentially dangerous superhero skill set with a broader neighborhood: the world wide web.

So, what will you find here in your friendly neighborhood cheesemonger’s blog? Well, I haven’t written much yet, so I don’t know! But my tentative plan is to drop some knowledge for folks who enjoy cheese but aren’t necessarily experts. I’ve found that most cheese blogs are either A) written for a very limited audience of cheese nerds (like me) already involved in the esoteric world of cheese or B) they’re just cheese porn that doesn’t really help average consumers.

I’d like my blog to be a resource for the customers I most often work with and those very much like them—folks who enjoy cheese but are a little overwhelmed by all the options at the fancy cheese counter. My job—both when I’m working behind the counter and now as I write this blog—is to make cheese accessible and fun and easy for anyone who wants to step up their cheese game at home.

At the counter showing off Roelli’s Dunbarton Blue. (Photo: Katharine Azzolini)