4 Reasons Lactose-Free Milk is so Expensive

Lactose-Free milk in Fridge

If you’re lactose intolerant like me, you’ve probably wondered why lactose-free milk (and other lactose-free items) are so expensive. Here are 4 reasons why lactose-free milk is expensive.

Lactose-Free Milk is not a Commodity

The fact that lactose-free milk is not a commodity means it will have a higher price.

In economic terms, a commodity is a good (food, material, etc) that can be bought and sold and is interchangeable with goods of the same type.

Interchangeable means that the market (those buying the commodities) treats the commodities as nearly equivalent to each other, regardless of the brand selling the produced or where the commodity is produced.

If you buy regular milk or rice from the store, which are both commodities, you’re less likely to look for a specific brand of the commodity because you can’t tell the difference between brands, and you’ll probably end up buying the cheapest commodity.

Another important trait of commodities is that they’re widely produced and widely available to the market, because there is so much market demand for commodities (people buy a lot of commodities).

So commodities are highly available, produced by many brands, and are interchangeable with each other, which means that the only way produces can compete and have you buy their product is to offer the lowest price.

All commodity producers are competing for you to buy their product, so the price of the commodity gets driven down and stays down. Rice, regular milk, wheat bread, wheat flour, can all be bought really cheap because they’re all commodities.

Lactose-free milk isn’t a commodity, and therefore its more expensive.

How do we know it’s not a commodity? If we walk up to the dairy section of a grocery store, you’ll see lots of options for regular dairy milk, and less options for lactose-free milk. Most stores these days seem to carry at least some lactose-free milk, and even dairy-free milk options, but selection is not as expansive of that of regular dairy milk.

A related product, lactose-free sour cream, is also not widely available in stores, and is also not a commodity. In fact most stores that I’ve seen do not carry lactose-free sour cream. I more commonly find dairy-free sour cream made with non-dairy ingredients in stores, which is not completely interchangeable with lactose-free sour cream.

Another sign that lactose-free milk isn’t a commodity is brand recognition around the product. Back in the old days when I wasn’t lactose intolerant, I didn’t look for a particular brand when purchasing milk. Now that I shop for lactose-free milk, I usually finds 2 brands of lactose free milk available, one of them being Lactaid, and the other being a local brand.

Lactaid has established themselves as one of the few large lactose-free brands. Pure commodity markets would have more than just a few prominent brands, and the brand wouldn’t matter as much because the products are interchangeable. Lactaid does have clear brand awareness in the lactose-free market, showing that lactose-free milk isn’t a commodity.

Lactase that is Added to Lactose-Free Milk is Expensive

In 2 of the methods used to produce lactose-free milk, lactase is added to the milk. Lactase is an enzyme that breaks down the complex sugar of lactose into the 2 simple sugars galactose and glucose, thus making the milk free of lactose.

Lactase is produced in our digestive system, but those who are lactose intolerant don’t produce enough lactase to break down lactose, and are therefore lactose intolerant.

The lactase used in lactose-free milk thankfully is not harvested from humans but rather it’s harvested from yeast and mold.

Lactase is expensive! If you’ve ever bought lactase tablets or liquid droplets to help you digest lactose, you know the pain of handing over lot of cash to get the enzyme. You can buy lactase drops to add to regular milk for $18 for just 1/2 a fluid oz ($32 per fluid oz)!

Producers who buy lactase commercially would be paying less than that per ounce, but we can be sure it’s still expensive. Additionally, having to buy an additional ingredient and then add that ingredient to the milk in an additional step makes the milk more expensive.

Making the Milk Lactose-Free Requires an Additional Step

In the production of any type of good, whether it be food or other material, adding an extra step the to the process will usually increase costs.

In most methods for processing regular dairy milk, the processing can happen in one continuous flow. Raw milk is pumped through heated pipes and metal plates to be pasteurized in one continuous flow.

When making lactose free-milk using the lactase enzym to break down lactose, the lactase requires time to be able to break down all the lactose in the milk (or break down at least enough of it the lactose). This would make lactose milk processing take longer, and be more expensive.

There are 3 ways to make milk lactose-free:

  1. Add lactase directly to the milk

Adding Lactase directly to the milk is the most straight forward way to make milk lactose free. Producers just have to add the lactase and the give the lactase sufficient time to break down the lactose.

After the lactase has had sufficient time to work and the milk has been tested to ensure it’s lactose free, the milk needs to be pasteurized to deactivate the lactose enzyme (can’t have active enzymes in your milk).

This pasteurization to deactivate the lactase can be expensive because 1) the producer has probably already pasteurized the milk once, now the milk has to be run through the pasteurization process again and 2) deactivating the expensive lactase enzyme means the enzyme can’t be used again, so new lactase needs to be used for every batch of milk.

2. Pass the milk through lactase that has been bound to another medium

Binding Lactase to another medium allows the milk to be passed over the lactase without the lactase remaining in the milk. Imagine encapsulating the lactase within another substance, then running the milk past those capsules to make the milk lactose free.

These capsules are much bigger than the lactose enzyme itself, so it’s easier to keep them separate from the milk. The lactase enzyme can still break down the lactose as the milks runs past the lactose, but the lactase isn’t left in the milk. This method allows the lactase to be used for more than one batch milk because the lactase doesn’t have to be deactivated by pasteurization.

This video demonstrates the first 2 methods of making lactose-free milk.

3. Separate out the lactose from the milk

Advanced filtration and other techniques are used in the dairy industry to remove sodium, whey, and even lactose from milk.

Mechanically separating out lactose using these methods is not as straight forward as just running the milk through a strainer, and is actually a somewhat complex process involving multiple steps.

This method does not use the lactase enzyme like the other methods, but still an additional step that regular dairy milk doesn’t require.

Now we’ll move on to the last reason lactose-free milk is expensive.

Lactase-Free Milk is Pasteurized Differently than Most Other Milks

Lactose-free milk usually undergoes Ultra Pasteurization, the pasteurization method using the highest temperatures out of all other commercial pasteurization methods.

Ultra Pasteurization requires requires holding milk at a temperature of 138ºC or 280ºF for 2 seconds. Most other dairy milk undergoes High Temperature Short Time Pasteurization – HTST, which requires the milk is be held at a lower temperature of at least 72ºC or 161ºF for 15 seconds.

(It may be confusing to call the HTST method “higher temperature shorter time” when it actually uses a lower temperature and longer time than ultra pasteurization. It’s named this way because it does use higher temperatures and shorter times than older pasteurization methods).

Lactose-Free milk is ultra pasteurized so that it can last longer on store shelves because there isn’t as much demand for lactose-free milk as there is for regular dairy milk. I wrote an entire post about why lactose-free milk lasts so long, found here.

Because ultra pasteurization requires higher temperatures, a higher energy usage to achieve the higher temperature would make the process more expensive. Also, as there is less demand for ultra pasteurized milk, the equipment used for ultra pasteurization could be more expensive than equipment for other pasteurization methods because it’s not as readily available.

Jordan Clark

Hi everybody, I'm Jordan! I was diagnosed with celiac disease and lactose intolerance in 2016, and have been living gluten-free and lactose-free out of necessity ever since. I created this blog to help to help others navigating the gluten-free life.

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