In a world where food issues are common, planning a dinner party can be something of a culinary challenge. Your average guest list might include a strict vegetarian, an organic advocate, someone with an egg allergy, someone who can’t eat nuts, several who shun gluten and one or two who avoid lactose. Once you whittle your menu down to a plate of salad greens, you may still wonder – what’s in the lettuce?
Lactose is a disaccharide, meaning it’s a simple carbohydrate made up of two individual sugar units: glucose and galactose. Most simple carbohydrates are easy to digest. Your body absorbs sugars, like fructose and glucose, as they are, while enzymes quickly break down other sugars – including sucrose and lactose – so you can absorb them. Lactase is the enzyme that breaks down lactose. Although most babies produce plenty of lactase, production often dwindles with age. Undigested lactose can cause diarrhea, nausea, intestinal gas, bloating and cramping. About 30 million Americans have some degree of lactose intolerance by age 20, according to 2013 information from MedlinePlus, a website of the National Institutes of Health.
Where You’ll Find It
Lactose is a natural part of milk, which is why it’s sometimes called “milk sugar.” All of the nearly 13 grams of sugar in an 8-ounce glass of plain low-fat milk comes from lactose. Yogurt, cheese, sour cream, butter, ice cream and other milk products tend to be high in lactose as well. The lactose in yogurt is usually easier to digest because it’s already partially digested by bacterial cultures. Baked goods, bread, potato chips, soups and other processed foods that list lactose, milk, milk powder, milk byproducts, dry milk solids or buttermilk among their ingredients also generally contain fairly substantial amounts of lactose.
Lettuce Has Sugar, Too
While you won’t get a single microgram of lactose from a whole head of lettuce, you’ll still get a bit of sugar. A 2-cup serving of shredded red-leaf lettuce has about 1/4 gram of sugar, all of which comes from fructose and glucose. Green-leaf lettuce has double that amount of sugar – a whopping 1/2 gram per 2-cup serving – and it’s also in the form of fructose and glucose. Iceberg lettuce, which some individuals think is nothing more than “crispy water,” is even higher in sugar, with a 2-cup serving of the shredded vegetable containing almost 3 grams.
Even if you eat a large, fresh green salad every single day, you shouldn’t stress about the sugar in lettuce. Not only is the amount too small to consider, but all of it is natural. Unlike the added sugars found in processed food products, naturally occurring sugars aren’t considered detrimental to your overall health. If you’re just trying to avoid lactose, skip the store-bought salad dressings – especially if they’re creamy – and toss your lettuce with a bit of olive oil or some fresh lemon juice. Garnish your salad with dry-roasted walnuts, diced avocado or shredded zucchini instead of crumbled feta, fresh mozzarella balls or shaved Parmesan cheese.
- MedlinePlus: Lactose Intolerance
- USDA National Nutrient Database: Lettuce, Red Leaf, Raw
- USDA National Nutrient Database: Lettuce, Green Leaf, Raw
- USDA National Nutrient Database: Lettuce, Iceberg (Includes Crisphead Types), Raw
- USDA National Nutrient Database: Milk, Lowfat, Fluid, 1% Milkfat, with Added Vitamin A and Vitamin D
- American Dietetic Association Complete Food and Nutrition Guide; Roberta Larson Duyff, M.S., R.D.
Based just outside Chicago, Meg Campbell has worked in the fitness industry since 1997. She’s been writing health-related articles since 2010, focusing primarily on diet and nutrition. Campbell divides her time between her hometown and Buenos Aires, Argentina.