Why is chocolate milk better tolerated by people with lactose maldigestion than unflavored milk?  That’s a big question that I am often asked. As a person with lactose sensitivity, I too can tolerate chocolate milk better than unflavored milk.  Can this be explained by folklore or science?   Because I am a registered dietitian, I look to science-based evidence.  And there is scientific evidence that supports this claim. 

According to an article in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “chocolate milk appears to be better tolerated than unflavored milk by lactose maldigesters, which can be explained by reduced breath hydrogen production when compared to skim milk.” Researchers agree that while the mechanism of action is not yet clear and further study is needed, the general hypothesis is:  1) cocoa might stimulate lactase activity, 2) cocoa might reduce the number of gas-producing bacteria in the colon, or 3) cocoa might slow gastric emptying.   

Not all people with lactose maldigestion can tolerate chocolate milk. It’s important to remember there are varying degrees of sensitivity to lactose. Some people may experience gastrointestinal disturbances every time they eat foods with lactose, while others may only experience this disturbance if they consume a large amount of lactose on an empty stomach. Furthermore, lactose maldigestion is dose related. My daughter cannot tolerate more than 2 ounces of any kind of milk and only a limited amount of cheese. On the other hand, I can tolerate 2 ounces of white milk, 4-6 ounces of chocolate milk and lots and lots of cheese. Fortunately, both of us enjoy all lactose-free milk and milk products.

Whether a person with lactose maldigestion can tolerate chocolate milk or not, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children with lactose intolerance should still consume dairy foods in order to get enough calcium, vitamin D, protein and other nutrients essential for bone health and overall growth. Children ages two to eight should consume two to three daily servings of dairy, and people nine years and older should consume thee servings of dairy a day. 

Everyone with lactose maldigestion can enjoy dairy foods by using these simple strategies to manage lactose intolerance:

  • Reduce it – Opt for lactose-free products
  • Sip it – Introduce dairy slowly
  • Stir it – Mix milk with food
  • Slice it Choose natural cheeses
  • Shred it – Top foods with cheese
  • Spoon it – Try yogurt

And finally, try chocolate milk. I would love to hear your story.

Arlene Murrell, MS, RD, LD, CLE